Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Queen’s Speech

P1000347It’s been just over 3 weeks since that most shocking of election results. It wasn’t so much that Labour, the party I was supporting, lost, but the consequences of that loss. No repeal of the bedroom tax, another assault on those with the least with a reported £12bn cut to benefits, creeping privatisation of the NHS, no lifting of the gag on charities to “speak truth to power” while private lobbyists and big business continue to wield undue influence. I felt sick, and then I felt angry, and then I realised that I needed to harness that energy, join with others, and do what I could to challenge inequality and help those most in need. So it was great to find 100 people at the constituency Labour party meeting two weeks later, all feeling the same thing

What happens now? I reckon we need to be active on two fronts. Firstly, people are in genuine need. Current policy is making life tough for many, and there are equally many ways we can get involved to help. What is going on in your community that you can join in with to help those in need? We had Baby Basics in church this morning, talking about how they provide clothes, nappies and toiletries for vulnerable new mums and babies who have nothing – asylum seekers, teenage mums, those fleeing domestic violence. And anyone in Sheffield can sign up as a Fairness Champion, to commit to tackling inequality across this city. I’m sure you can find examples where you live.

But equally, we need to challenge injustice where we find it in the legislation that will be put before us over the next parliament. Like a stuck record, I keep saying that we can support food banks, but we must continue to denounce the fact that food banks even need to exist in 21st century Britain. So I thought it would be worth looking at the Queen’s Speech, to see what a Tory-only government looks like. As I see it, what are the challenges that lie ahead, the challenges to justice and equality?

The speech starts well, promising to “help working people get on”, and “new opportunities to the most disadvantaged”, and to “provide economic stability and security at every stage of life.” I think we’ll be coming back to these promises later on. I’m really keen to get beyond the sound bites and look the legislation that is actually being proposed.

Take, for example, the legislation put forward “to help achieve full employment and provide people with the security of a job”. This refers to the “full employment and welfare benefits bill”. The main purpose of this bill is to lower the benefit cap (the total a non-working family can receive in benefits) from £26,000 to £23,000 a year and to freeze most working-age benefits for two years. Not so much of the opportunities for the most disadvantaged there, then. Instead, an arbitrary cap on income for many whose expenditure will continue to rise. Support for young people will also become much more difficult to access.

The government’s attitude to welfare seems to be unchanged. Despite the fact that by far the biggest spending on welfare goes on pensions, the speech promises to “secure the real value of the basic state pension”. Not that I want to knock pensioners, but it is funny how welfare reform never quite reaches this far. Meanwhile, that other huge chunk of welfare spending, housing benefits, is not mentioned at all, except that it will be included in the benefit cap above. No plans to tackle exorbitant rents, poor housing or exploitative landlords. Instead, the government offers housing association tenants the right-to-buy their homes. The fact that the government doesn’t own these assets which it seems so determined to sell doesn’t seem to matter. This is the government’s answer to the housing crisis, despite the fact that under previous schemes, newly built replacement housing doesn’t keep pace with the number of houses sold. And we’re still not getting anywhere near “new opportunities to the most disadvantaged”, who wouldn’t be able to afford to buy their homes anyway.

The plan that people working 30 hours a week on the national minimum wage would not pay income tax is a good one. It does seem ludicrous that a minimum wage is set which is then subject to income tax. This will be done by raising the income tax threshold. Now, here comes the science. Raising the income tax threshold does not help the poorest and most disadvantaged people in our society. They are already not paying tax! But it does help everyone else – including those who are already well-off or rich, because they end up paying less taxes too. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it, I’m just saying it’s not a measure to help those who are really poor.

There’s a lot of reading between the lines to be done, as far as I’m concerned. Take the promise of providing 30 hours of free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds. This is clearly linked to working 30 hours on the minimum wage above. But providing 30 hours of childcare doesn’t mean you can work for 30 hours, unless we are expecting 3 and 4 year olds to take themselves to nursery? And another thing! This isn’t free child care! It is places in nursery schools. Since when was nursery simply free child care? I’m not sure what the fully-qualified, Ofsted-inspected nursery teachers will make of that. Credit to my friend’s blog for pointing this out.

make tax fairPresumably, this is going to cost money, which apparently we don’t have, and it’s unclear where we’re going to find it, as the Queen’s Speech also promises “no rises in income tax rates, value-added tax or national insurance for the next five years”. Nor does it offer any measures to tackle tax dodging, despite this being a manifesto promise.

“Securing the future of the NHS” is another empty promise unless it is accompanied by some funds. I agree that access to GPs and mental healthcare needs to be improved. I also know people who work in both these services who are working way beyond their contracted hours, in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances. To genuinely attempt to get this right will require money, time, patience and proper consultation with those at the sharp end. I particularly like the comment on Have I Got News For You that increasing the number of GPs may be incompatible with reducing immigration!

But we really see Cameron following in Thatcher’s footsteps with his plans to “reform trade unions”. This amounts to making conditions for a strike ballot far tougher than those any elected government has ever needed to reach. Conditions which the TUC predicts will make it almost illegal to strike. Nice to see what it really means to help working people get on, by removing their right to withhold their labour, while low-pay, zero-hours contracts and other exploitative working practices continue unchecked.

The government will continue with its plan to expand academies and free schools, despite the lack of evidence that free schools in particular actually do better in the long term. Despite appearing to bring control of education closer to communities, in effect it actually centralises it, taking schools away from local authorities and bringing them under central government authority. I’ll leave you to decide if this is good or bad.

I read the Queen’s Speech with a profound sense of disappointment at how small Great Britain seems to have become. So much of what is proposed focuses only inwards, and the outward looking legislation is diminishing. Our relationship with the EU is to be renegotiated, and then we will decide whether to stand with our European neighbours or to stand apart. Although he backed off from proposing legislation, Cameron still insists on a discussion about whether we continue to hold ourselves accountable to others on the issue of rights, or whether we will decide to be accountable only to ourselves. The plan to “modernise the law on communications data” is a revival of the micro-managing snooper’s charter. I’d like to see “extremism” better defined before we get to the legislation. Disagreeing with governments is healthy, spying on your citizens is not.

It’s good to see climate change getting a look in. The government pledges “effective global collaboration…to combat climate change, including at the climate change conference in Paris later this year”. I’m also pleased to see measures to increase energy security. It would be good if this included more investment in renewable energy and an end to fossil fuel subsidies, so we can be liberated from our dependence on gas, coal and oil. Fracking is not the answer.

I hope we can lead the way to effective action on climate change, and I hope we can “continue to play a leading role in global affairs”. But the rhetoric on Europe alongside our abdication of responsibility for the refugee crisis in the Med means Great Britain is starting to look very small indeed.

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Bishop of Sheffield to Mr Cameron

The Bishop of Sheffield posted a brilliant blog on 11th May, following the election. It’s so good, I’ve reproduced it all here. You can find the original on the Diocese of Sheffield website.

The Prime Minister will not be short of advice as he appoints the Cabinet and prepares the Queen’s Speech.  There is a particular bible story about accepting and weighing advice that I would suggest it might be helpful for him to read and ponder in the first days of the new government.

It’s a story about transition.  King Solomon has died.  All the tribes of Israel have gathered to make his son, Rehoboam, the new king.  But there is widespread discontent.  A delegation comes from the northern tribes, requesting an easing of their burdens.

Rehoboam has a choice to make and he asks for three days to reflect.  He consults two sets of advisors.  The first group, his father’s counsellors, advise him to listen to the people, to be their servant, to reach out to the disaffected and lead from this foundation.

The second group, his own contemporaries, give opposite advice.  Discontent should be met with harshness.  The burdens on the north should be increased still further.  The new government should start as it means to go on.

Reheboam makes his choice.  It is a fateful one.  He listens to the younger, harsher, more strident voices.  A few years later, the kingdom is divided, at war, impoverished and in chaos.

I have no doubt that David Cameron will receive both sorts of advice in the coming days.  There will be those who counsel him to reach out to the whole nation, to connect with the disaffected, to listen to the people and to be their servant.  But there will be those who see the Conservative majority as a mandate to fulfill and go beyond the manifesto commitments, blind to the risk of increasing the burdens of those who already bear the heavy load (of sickness, disability or the struggle to find sustainable employment).

The Prime Minister’s speech on the steps of Downing Street on Thursday moved clearly in the first direction.  David Cameron spoke of one nation and sought to connect more deeply with those who had voted for other parties, with the people of Scotland, with the regions.  He promised to bring our country together, to help working people and give “the poorest people the chance of training, a job and hope for the future”.

Much of this rhetoric is encouraging but now it needs to be supported and backed up with action.  That action needs to be taken swiftly to begin to draw the United Kingdom back together again and begin to build for the future.  The choices made in the next few days about priorities and plans for legislation in the next year are critical.

So here are some suggestions for a big, open offer from Mr Cameron to every part of the United Kingdom, and especially to those who voted for other parties.

  • Make an early, concrete and clear commitment to safeguarding the environment and to leadership in the key climate conferences this year through the appointments you make and in the Queen’s Speech.  Action on climate change is integral to economic growth.
  • Abolish the bedroom tax.  It hasn’t worked.  It has generated more resentment than revenue.  Repealing it would demonstrate a capacity for change and to think again.
  • Promise an early review of benefits sanctions as part of the ongoing reform of welfare.  Sanctions cause massive hardship.  They are responsible for a significant number of people needing foodbanks.  They are tangential to the main welfare reforms.  In the meantime suspend sanctions for families with children and people suffering from mental ill health.
  • Encourage the Living Wage as part of growing a sustainable, strong national economy.
  • Take a long view of constitutional reform.  Acknowledge the concern revealed by the election outcome.  Entrust it to some kind of independent commission which has time and space to think.  Don’t rush the key decisions which will affect the whole future of the United Kingdom.
  • Revisit the Big Society ideas, if not the language.  Place active partnership, between national and local government and the faith and voluntary sector, front and centre again, not as a replacement of government initiative but complementary to it.  Make sure there is clear leadership for these ideas at Cabinet level.
  • Accelerate the provision of truly affordable housing and prioritise this as part of investment in the future.  Protect and strengthen social housing provision to ensure that everyone has access to a decent home at a price they can afford.
  • Reach out to the English regions as well as to Scotland in swift and tangible ways.  In particular make investment in the northern powerhouse a key priority for the first two years of the new government.

The word Minister means servant.  A Prime Minister is called to be one who serves the whole nation.  If Reheboam had listened to different advice the whole story of Israel would have been different.  I hope that David Cameron will take a moment to read and ponder his story: to listen to all the people, to lighten burdens, and to build one nation, for the benefit of all.

+Steven Sheffield

(The story of Reheboam’s choice is told in 1 Kings 12)

It’s not over yet

I don’t think it will surprise anyone that I’m gutted about Thursday’s election results. I don’t claim that this blog is unbiased, just that I write aware of my bias. I’m still coming to terms with the idea that we will have to live with the bedroom tax, the gag on charities, welfare sanctions and food banks for another five years.

The initial feelings of bleakness have passed. But I don’t want to let go of the feeling that something is profoundly amiss. That we cannot let this go. That we must do something. I had the same conversation with strangers in a café on Friday morning and with friends in church today.

I think it will take time to work out what that something is that we must do. But today I wanted to say something about democracy. Election day is the beginning, not the end of the democratic process. We don’t only hold our government to account once every five years. We call them to account every step of the way. A democracy means we have the freedom to speak out about the things that concern us, so we must use this freedom to champion the good and call out injustice.

We’re not all going to agree about what that might mean. But in a democracy, we have the space to debate what matters to us. There is a place for everyone to have their say. We may not like what people have chosen, but we damage democracy if we say that people cannot be trusted to choose well.

However, I do believe we can say that people have not necessarily had the best information. Facts and figures are lost in a swamp of spin and distortion. Who can untangle the truth about what really happens to people who are trying to claim disability benefits or look for work when your only information comes from hysterical newspaper headlines? The carefully collected and presented research from groups such as Oxfam and the Joint Public Issues Team barely get a mention in our media.

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So, this is a call to fight for democracy. For us to continue what our votes started and keep holding our MPs and our government to account. Get in touch with your MP. Let them know what matters to you. Speak up for truth and justice. Don’t let things go unchallenged. Tell the stories of people who don’t normally have their voice heard. The disenfranchised, the marginalised, those without power because in Britain today money is power. A good place to start would be to share Church Action on Poverty’s real stories of people on benefits, not the Channel 4 version.

We might have picked ourselves up from the devastation of Friday morning. But don’t forget how that exit poll made you feel. We’re going to need to remember, because we have a long journey ahead of us.

2 Corinthians 4:8-9 seemed appropriate: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Stand up and be counted

P1000360_2So, Thursday is nearly here, and there’s one thing you really need to do on Thursday – and that’s vote! However you feel about politicians and politics, I can’t subscribe to the Russell Brand point of view that urges us not to vote.

Please don’t think your vote doesn’t count. It does for sure – someone in a community building somewhere will count it! Admittedly it is pretty exciting voting in a constituency with a majority of only 165! But however big the majority in your constituency, when the returning officer reads out the number of votes cast, yours will be included in the count. With the election being so unpredictable, who knows how everyone else will vote. I think we could see some seats changing hands unexpectedly. A vote for a small party adds weight to the argument that some kind of proportional representation better reflects the votes cast. And while we’re stuck with first passed the post yet likely to return a hung parliament, proportion of votes cast may well play a part in establishing which party has the legitimacy to form a minority government.

The right to vote has been hard won, especially for women, but also for anyone who is not part of the landed gentry. There are places round the world where the right to vote has yet to be won, or where it is meaningless due to lack of opposition or corrupt election processes. In the last election, more people did not vote at all than voted for any one particular party. What a difference all those votes could have made!

But voting is only the start of the democratic process. Democracy is not just about free and fair elections every five year. Democracy is about power, about power not residing with the governing elite, but with the people. On Thursday, we have power in our hands, because we are calling the last government to account. Do we believe they have done right by us? Or have they let us down? And do we believe that others who would stand in their stead would do it better?

And it doesn’t end there. We need to continue to hold our politicians and our government to account. To hold them to the promises they have made, to expect them to create a society where all can flourish and none is left behind. To do this, we need to pay attention to what is going on, to inform ourselves, to recognise what is happening to our communities, but also what is happening in communities that are different to our own. Which means we need information – good, accurate, unbiased information. Which makes a free press vital to democracy, and makes it essential that organisations and charities working on the ground have the freedom to speak out. It also means that we need to be able to hold the media to account if they hid the truth or fail to expose it.

Suddenly I’m feeling a heavy burden of responsibility! Who knew how much it takes to be a good citizen? Can’t wait to take that first, easy step on Thursday and put my X in a box.