Monthly Archives: February 2014

Who benefits from benefits?

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It’s time to tell a different story about where public money goes and who benefits from benefits. We need an alternative to the current narrative from the government about “hardworking people” who “do the right thing”, who end up paying for those who aren’t working. However, the chart above shows that the spending on people on the edge of society who are working hard looking for a job is a very small part of social security spending. And the changes to Job Seekers Allowance means that it can be very hard to do all the right things required of you to avoid a sanction. (I took the chart from this blog and the information in it comes from this government paper on page 57).

Huge amounts are spent on pensions, but I’m not going to go there…

Four times as much money is spent on housing compared to unemployment benefits, and the housing benefit bill has been steadily rising. Housing benefits pay rents which people would otherwise not be able to afford. But this safety net means that rents can rise as they are not held back people’s ability to pay. This is the logic of capping housing benefit, so that it doesn’t continue to fuel rent rises. But who suffers the most with this policy? Those who can’t afford to pay rents. This takes power away from the already pretty powerless, and cedes more power to the powerful. Those with little power or money have little choice and are at the mercy of uncaring landlords providing poor accommodation. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money is being paid to wealthy private landowners, making the rich richer, as this article explains.

Capping rent not benefits would cut the benefit bill but this time the change to the balance of power would be in favour of the weakest. I don’t believe that we should kneel before the altar of the market, but if we want to use market forces, a better way of reducing prices would be to increase supply, especially as rising prices can’t diminish demand of what is an essential rather than a luxury good. This means building more houses, which would also increase employment. And as it would be a good idea to make sure these houses were affordable and not susceptible to soaring rents, why not let them be council houses?

We need to join the dots. Giles Fraser writing about why the church should be angry about welfare policy, says that homelessness in London has risen by 60% in two years. We do have choices, and I believe we need to make choices which don’t just make economic sense, but choices which protect the most vulnerable in our society. So in this case, that is the tenant and not the landowner.

And while we’re on the subject of public money going to already wealthy private individuals, lets join some more dots up and widen it out to private companies. Take another look at the chart above and the figure paid out to families and children. Some of this will be child benefit, a universal benefit. There are good reasons to keep benefits universal, not least so we all have a stake in our society, but that’s another subject. The rest includes child tax credit and working families tax credit. This is paid as a “top-up” to ensure low-paid families can still afford a reasonable standard of living, and tries to ensure being in work pays more than not being in work.

This is somewhat at odds with the government’s narrative. Hardworking families who are doing the right thing still need to claim benefits, because they are not earning enough. Maybe this is to do with working part-time because of issues around childcare. Or maybe because there are only part-time jobs available (I talked about underemployment in my last blog). But plenty of these benefits are paid out to people working full-time but still considered to be earning too little for a decent standard of living. How can this be? How can it be that it is possible to work full-time and still not be able to afford to pay the bills and feed your family? Surely that’s why we have a minimum wage? But sadly, since its introduction in 1999 its value in real terms (taking into account rising prices) has been declining since 2010. An independent body calculates the hourly rate required for someone working full-time to earn enough for a decent standard of living, and this is know as the Living Wage.

Meanwhile, non-Living Wage employers are paying minimum but inadequate wages, which need to be topped up out of public funds. Some of these employers may be small businesses struggling themselves, which is why the Living Wage is a voluntary scheme. But plenty of these businesses are large firms making large profits. Supermarkets are a classic example. A quick scan of the list of living wage employers did not reveal any supermarkets to me, and yet they are posting huge profits. Profits built on low-paid workers subsidised by public money.

I don’t know what difference my little blog will do. But we need to talk about these things. We need to challenge anyone who says we cannot afford our welfare bill. Protecting the vulnerable is a key function of a civilised country. Our spending needs reform, but reform should protect the interests of the weak not the powerful. We are all stake-holders in a system which protects us when times are tough. The powerful have the capacity to protect their own interests, and they are doing very nicely at this thank you very much (Church Action on Poverty estimates tax dodging costs the UK at least £45 billion a year). A lot has been said this week about the morality of welfare reform. The Bible is full of exhortations to support the poor and the weak, to be a voice for the voiceless, especially the Old Testament. But I came across this the other day. Right at the heart of his plans to spread the message about Jesus, Paul says this: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:10, NIV)

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Deconstructing unemployment figures

For every one of those people who has found a job, it is good news that the number of people in employment has risen. I only spent a few months looking for work, and every rejection saps your confidence while the bills keep coming in. But figures which record more people in work and fewer people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) are pretty meaningless on their own.

For a start, the two measures are not entirely correlated – someone finding a job is not necessarily someone coming off benefits. I was never claiming JSA while I was job-hunting. Likewise, someone coming off JSA is not the same as someone finding a job. The current stream of people relying in desperation on food banks thanks to the brutal system of punitive sanctions is testament to that. This, I think, is at the heart of the Bishops’ recent criticism of government policy. Finding yourself with no money for four or six weeks without warning is hardly going to inspire hope.

But even if we accept that more people are finding work, the figures still do not tell the whole story. I’d like to know what kind of work people are finding. During the recession, thousands and thousands of people in the public and private sectors were made redundant. Many of these jobs were full-time, well-paid, permanent contracts with secure terms and conditions. The labour market has been badly damaged since then, with less security for workers, and an increase in short-term, part-time, low-paid jobs. The fuss over zero-hours contracts has died down, but the situation remains that people can get such a job, their JSA stops, but they don’t get any income because they don’t get any work.

We need to see more than the headline figures before we decide if the economy is really getting better. It is important that we know that the number of people who are self-employed is continuing to rise – great if you want to measure entrepreneurship but not so great for job security. And the number of people working part-time is also still 46,000 more than this time last year. This should be considered alongside the measure of people working part-time only because they can’t find full-time work – currently almost 5% of everyone who is working, or 1.4 million people, nearly as high as it has ever been.

The other price we have paid for a rising number of jobs in an environment of weakening workers’ rights is a drop in the real value of wages. Inflation may be falling, but at 1.9% it is still higher than the latest figures on weekly earnings increase of 1.1%, and we have got several years of rising prices and falling wages to catch up on. And for those on the lowest wages, rising prices have a bigger impact, as food and fuel take up a bigger proportion of household spending.

Finding a job is a good news story for every individual involved. But before we hail it as good news for the economy as a whole, and a sign of our economic recovery, I’d like us to evaluate the quality of the jobs which are being created. We need more full-time jobs, permanent contracts and better wages. This needs to include actually enforcing the minimum wage to root out unscrupulous employers, and moving as a society towards the living wage to ensure that being in work means you can actually support your family.

Investing in a greener future

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I’ve just come back from a great day in Leeds with Christian Aid, at a training event for campaigning, and I’m feeling inspired and energised. What was the hot topic that has got me so excited? Pensions! Yes, really!

So what is the connection between pensions and Christian Aid campaigning? Pensions are all about investing for the future. We put money aside now and hope to see a return that will provide for us in our old age. But in the meantime, our money is already hard at work. Through our pension funds, we are the shareholders of the companies on the stock exchange. It isn’t just any old money which makes the world go round, it is our money! If we add to this an ethical perspective, we might want to make some other choices about where we invest. For example, we might decide that we don’t want to invest in a company which sells weapons. It might also be rather nice if our money was working for good, perhaps for a pharmaceutical firm developing a cure for malaria.

But so far, this is going over old ground, exploring decisions lots of us have made if we’ve tried to find ethical investment funds. The real epiphany of the day was to consider how our pension is an investment in our future in more ways than the pay-out when we retire. If our money was used by that pharmaceutical company to find a cure for cancer or an effective treatment for dementia, that really would be an investment for our old age. There is almost £3trillion invested in UK pensions – this inconceivably large sum of money has huge potential, but the question is, what kind of future is it being used to build?

Climate change is the most significant challenge of our time. Humanity’s response to this challenge will determine what kind of future we and our children will face. So how can pension funds invest in and for the future? Clearly, I’d like my money to be used to fund renewable energy rather than fossil fuel. But I’d not considered the need for pensions to be invested in companies that will be resilient in the face of the degree of climate change likely to have happened by the time I retire. Also needed is investment in ways to prevent or at least adapt to climate change, like energy-efficient technology, green infrastructure, a low-carbon economy.

This is our money, and it has enormous potential for good or for ill. Today was all about unlocking that potential, and Christian Aid have teamed up with ShareAction to enable pension savers to have in say in where and how their money is invested. They have launched a new campaign called the Green Light campaign. Anyone with a pension invested in shares can follow the links on the website to email their pension fund to find out its carbon footprint. They have also prepared a reportresilient portfolios in an uncertain world” with research and recommendations for pension fund managers. The idea is to encourage funds to invest in greener businesses, but also to get funds to use their power as shareholders to direct businesses away from high-emissions activity, such as drilling for oil in the Arctic. We don’t have to be helpless bystanders in world dominated by corporate power.

I believe people have a God-given responsibility to care for this planet and its people, and not to just exploit its resources. I have bigger questions about money, power and capitalism, but I also think that sometimes we have to work with the system we’ve got. I think this could be a really effective tool in the campaigning toolkit and I’ll be contacting my pension provider. I’d encourage you to follow the link to the ShareAction campaign and contact yours! I’ll finish with words from p7 of the Green Light campaign report:

“This is a different kind of climate campaign. Its focus on pension funds will unlock the power of the trillions invested in them to fund a greener, fairer future. In doing so, we aim to protect our pensions and our planet. We hope you’ll join with us, as citizen saver or civil society organisation, as we push our pension funds to get climate-conscious.”

Sprouts are for life, not just for Christmas

sproutsMy blog has been rather neglected during our relocation, not much time for deep thinking. So, something simple to start off again.

I try to find ways to tread more lightly on this planet, with an eye on the future inheritance of our children, and as a matter of justice for those who don’t have the option to consume as many of the earth’s resources as those of us who are wealthy. (And we are wealthy, check here to find out!) I have to say I achieve variable degrees of success, and making time is usually a significant factor. But I tried two of them today, which has led me to this post.

Firstly, although we’re not vegetarians, I try to cook meat-free for our family main meal at least once a week. Animal protein takes up much more energy and resources to produce than vegetable protein. Secondly, I try to buy vegetables from a greengrocer rather than a supermarket. I hope this means I am purchasing food closer to the supplier in terms of cutting out middle men and food miles. So today, I walked to my new local greengrocer on my way to collect my youngest from school to buy fresh veggies for dinner. But – shock horror! – they didn’t have any sprouts! And when I asked why they didn’t have any sprouts, I was told that no-one really buys them after Christmas!

So I am hereby starting a new campaign. Sprouts are for life, and not just for Christmas. Although, more correctly, sprouts are for Autumn and Winter when they are in season, and not just for Christmas. How can it be possible that most people only eat fairy cabbages once a year? They are much too nice to be restricted in this way.

And to help the campaign, here is my favourite sprout-containing meat-free meal, adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Veg Everyday. There’s four of us, this filled us up nicely today:

  • 1 onion, finely sliced
  • chopped chilli to taste
  • 2 carrots, chopped into thin batons
  • 10 or 12 sprouts, finely sliced
  • mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 clove garlic
  • bag of beansprouts
  • (or you can use whatever vegetables you have lurking in your fridge or veg rack)
  • enough noodles to feed your family
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp dry sherry (Hugh says rice wine but I never have any)
  • ½ tsp chinese five spice
  • salt and pepper

cook the noodles according to the instructions on the packet

stir fry the veg in oil, adding them in the order above (ie onions need a bit longer than the carrots and so on) – I use a wok for this

remove the veg from the wok and drain the noodles

put the soy sauce, sherry and five spice in the wok over a low heat, add the noodles and stir to coat

put the veg back in the wok over the heat, mix thoroughly together, season and serve