Rejoice in the Lord always!

rodah

This is the text of my sermon at St Nicholas, Bradfield, for Christian Aid at their Harvest Festival on 9 October 2016

Autumn is that time of year when we celebrate God’s abundance and rejoice in His blessing. I love the changing colours of this time of year, the rich reds and golds on the trees. We get to have real English plums, and the hedgerows are full of bounty too. One of our family Autumn rituals is blackberry picking. All those juicy berries in the hedge ready to pick without any of the hard work beforehand!

Mind you, I get to enjoy all the harvest without any worry or effort beforehand. I don’t have the stress of getting all my grain in before it rains, or worrying about whether my carrots and parsnips are too skinny or too knobbly for Tesco, though maybe Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s efforts mean our parsnips can be a little more knobbly these days. The harvest is not a foregone conclusion, which is why we’re here today to give thanks for it. Some of us are more dependent on the land than others for our livelihoods, but in this country we can be fairly confident that it will rain, it will at some point be sunny, and we have resources to make up for it if something doesn’t grow.

But I want to tell you about a part of the world where Harvest is much more tricky. Christian Aid met a woman called Rodah and her neighbours in the countryside in Kenya, where the weather is very dry. Everything needs water to grow, so when the river dries up, Rodah has to go and fetch water. She uses a container a bit like the one we use when we go camping. I took it to church full of water and asked the children to try and lift it up – far too heavy, one of them nearly fell over! But everyone guessed correctly that Rodah has to carry two of these almost as far as from Bradfield church to Sheffield city centre and back. Her water supply is six miles away. When you have to carry water like this, you can’t carry enough to make everything grow. Sometimes Rodah couldn’t grow enough food to feed her children and they would be hungry. She would have to spend money to buy food instead. So that meant there wasn’t enough money to pay for school, so her children had to stop going. Who here would be sad if they couldn’t go to school?

In Kenya, they don’t have spring, summer, autumn and winter like in England. But they do have seasons – the rainy season and the dry season. So, in the rainy season, the rain waters the land, and the water comes back in the river so it is much nearer to collect. Then, in the dry season, the river dries up. But because of climate change, the weather in Kenya is changing. The rain doesn’t come when Rodah and her neighbours expect it, so they don’t know when to plant their crops. The dry season lasts longer, and sometimes the rain doesn’t come at all. So the people living there are no longer able to grow enough food, and the six mile trip for water happens all year round, not just for a short time. That’s why Christian Aid went to meet Rodah.

Christian Aid is supporting the Anglican Development Services to work with Rodah’s neighbours to see how they can help them make their lives better. ADS gave the farmers different seeds, ones that grow better in dry conditions, so they can grow more food. The farmers were given some training too, about new, better ways to farm their land so that things would grow bigger and better. And ADS also helped the community to build a sand dam, which would trap the water in the river so that it would last through the dry season.

Now Rodah grows enough food to feed all of her family, and she has enough left over to sell in the local market. Her children are back at school – hurray! She has enough money and enough work to employ other people to work on her land too, so now they have more money. This story is repeated throughout the area, so now quite a few people have more money to spend. This means that other people can set up small businesses. There is a tailor in town, making school uniforms for all the children who can now go to school, women selling hand-woven baskets and other businesses too.

This is just one of many stories of Christian Aid helping communities build a better future, one story that we wanted to tell you so that would know where your money goes. Christian Aid made some resources to tell this Harvest story and showed them to Rodah. She burst into tears, she was so overwhelmed by the idea that people like you cared so much about her and her neighbours. When asked what message we could pass on to churches in the UK, Rodah said ‘Go and thank them very much for the water source. Because if it was not for this water source, we would not have this crop.’

Now we’re going to turn to the Bible passages that were read out earlier (Philippians 4:4-9 and John 6:25-35). The story in John’s gospel takes place just after Jesus has fed 5,000 people. The well-fed crowd seems pretty impressed by this. So impressed that they go looking for Jesus, wanting more from this miracle worker.

But Jesus is very astute. He cuts through the veneer and challenges them – are they looking for more signs of God, or more food for their bellies? Jesus knows they’ve been drawn in by their physical desires, but he wants to take them beyond this to understand that their spiritual needs require more attention.

He tells them to focus on working for food that will sustain them for eternal life, which means believing that Jesus is the one sent by God, the son of God. But they are still asking for a sign, still asking for the bread of heaven, the food of eternal life. So Jesus has to spell it out for them. He is the sign. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever come to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

We need to recognise that we are one a spiritual journey, to give attention to our spiritual life. On our spiritual journey towards God, to eternal life, Jesus is all we need. He is our guide, our light in the darkness, our strength to carry on, our shelter in the storm. He is utterly dependable, with us every step of the way. Like bread, he will sustain us.

It’s interesting that this is the text for Harvest. Superficially it looks perfect – Bread of life and all that. But just under the surface it is a little at odds to focus on a time when Jesus was speaking about food for our soul when here today we are really celebrating our physical food. Harvest is just a real world, ‘flesh’ festival. Churches are full of real, physical offerings. We are thankful that the harvest has been gathered safely in and there will be food in our bellies for the next year.

And then Jesus tells us “do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures for eternal life.” What are we to make of this? Do we say that all that we don’t need to do anything but pray and worship , and all these other things will miraculously fall in our laps?

This is plainly stupid. Unless we sow and reap, there will be no harvest. Unless we milk the cow, there will be no ice cream at Our Cow Molly. But perhaps Jesus means us to go about our daily lives, but to do it trusting, believing in him. We all have our part to play in making the world turn, in business or public service, on the land or in the office. Perhaps Jesus means that we play our part, but do it with prayer and trusting our lives to him, and then the Bread of Life will ensure that we won’t go hungry or thirsty.

This somehow seems to make more sense, and various versions of this can be heard between Christians everywhere.

But then why is the church collecting for the foodbank? Are we saying that people need food parcels because they didn’t have enough faith? Or that good Christians don’t need food parcels? Or consider Rodah and her neighbours in Kenya. If only they’d prayed harder, then the rain would have fallen. They just need to trust in God, then there will be enough to feed their families. I don’t think any of us can accept this analysis.

We know that Jesus is the path, the way to God. There are no hoops to jump through, no exams to pass, no 11+. To know Jesus is to be reconciled with God and to be fully resourced for our spiritual journey through life. We’ve created symbols and rituals which can help us on our way, but the bottom line is that all we need is Jesus.

But God remains concerned about our physical life too. He gave the Israelites manna every day when they were lost in the desert to meet their physical needs. The passage from Philippians also tells us to let our requests be known to God in prayer and supplication.

We have to deal with this mismatch. We have the gift of eternal life. But this earthly life is precarious, many are only just holding on by their fingertips, and some do not make it. What does it mean for the church to say ‘Jesus is the Bread of Life’ while people are going hungry?

I think we know what it means. We cannot stand by. We do not stand by. That is demonstrated here by your offering of food, and hopefully later by your offering of money for Christian Aid. I just want to take you to James, who expresses what we know is true, that our faith in Jesus is revealed when it turns to action, and that without action, our faith is exposed as being no faith at all. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16).

The church is called to be Good News. Christian Aid is the outworking of that. 70 years ago, people in churches in Britain and Ireland saw the plight of displaced people in Europe after the second world war and could not stand by. Christian Aid was formed as the way for these churches to live out their calling and help these refugees however they could. Today, Christian Aid is still the agent of the church, working round the world to bring an end to poverty. We are your organisation. So that’s why we come back to the churches regularly, to ask you to continue to give to support the work we are doing in your name.

I’ve shared one of Christian Aid’s stories, and there are many more to share. Our vision is an end to poverty. Wherever we are involved, we always work through local partners. We don’t parachute in with our solutions, but ask grassroots organisations to work with those in need to bring about their own solutions to their problems. Christian Aid and the partner organisations can add value in terms in terms of knowledge or finances, but poor communities are the experts in their own situation and they can be the agents of their own change. This empowerment is the key to unlocking long term change towards that vision to end poverty.

One part of the solution in Kenya that I didn’t mention earlier involves cameras. A few of Rodah’s neighbours were given cameras to take pictures of the dam, the thriving crops and the new businesses. They documented in detail the transformation of their community brought about by simple interventions. Now these photographs are being used to show what a difference can be made. They are being shown to the Kenyan equivalent to local councillors to advocate for the same transformation in other neighbourhoods and communities. With the right help, the people in Rodah’s community were able to build the dam and transform the way they look after their land to build sustainable farms and businesses, lifting them out of poverty for the long term. But they also have the power to support their neighbours, and help them to advocate for their own solutions to poverty. To call the local leadership to account, to ask for funding from the powers that be in Kenya, so that the balance of power is shifted in favour of the poor.

I wanted to tell you about this because it shows how the effects of one project can be amplified. Christian Aid’s partner can work with a small group, but once that group is empowered to advocate for their rights and the rights of their neighbours, then the same transformation can be wrought many times over. A neglected community now has influence to challenge that injustice and bring about change. Money brings power. Christian Aid works with the poorest communities in the world, those without power, those who have a voice that doesn’t get heard. Making sure that voice is heard is one of the most important things that Christian Aid can do.

So how do we respond? What does it mean for the Church to say Jesus is the Bread of Life while people are hungry? What does it take to be a church that cares for people’s physical as well as spiritual needs? I can make a few suggestions, and I’m sure you can think of more. Please give generously to the work of Christian Aid today. It takes around £500 to construct a sand dam like the one built in Rodah’s community. Training for 5 farmers costs around £160, and seeds for 28 farmers costs about £64. Christian Aid’s work is not just about Harvest, but goes on throughout the year. If you would like your support for Christian Aid to go on throughout the year, please make a regular gift. Regular gifts really help us to plan what we can achieve in the long term. We can also amplify the voices of the poor. Partly we do that when we give to Christian Aid, and we do it again when we join in Christian Aid’s campaigning. But we can also do it when we challenge injustice and make decisions which shift the balance of power in favour of the poor, for example when we buy Fairtrade tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar. There are voices in the UK that need amplifying too. Perhaps it is time to ask your MP why 1 million people needed food parcels last year in the UK – one of the richest countries in the world?

This harvest, we give thanks that Jesus, the bread of life, gives us food for eternal life. We also give thanks that God has provided us with this harvest and takes care of our physical needs too. And our response of love and worship is to give, act and pray so that we can be good news to those who are hungry.

Pushing the Boundaries

bce_306_aw_1I know I shouldn’t do it. But sometimes I just can’t help it. I’ve been arguing with strangers on the internet. I just couldn’t let it go, so perhaps a blog is better than an incoherent rant on Facebook. I’m talking about the boundary review published this week by the boundary commission.

The headline story is that the number of constituencies, and therefore the number of MPs, is to reduce from 650 to 600 in order to ‘save money’ and to equalise the number of voters in each seat. The net effect is that most of the seats that will go are being lost in urban areas, though Wales will also lose 11 seats, going from 40 to 29 representatives in the Commons. This all seems calmly logical, but I’m fizzing rage!

For a start, the whole premise of the review is smokescreen. Six years into Tory administration, we are still being sold the line that our economy is broken and the only way to fix it is through austerity, an austerity that seems to apply to some more than others, and that we are still struggling under after six years. Austerity is a false premise to start with, and merely an excuse for the government to conduct this review. And as this blog points out, any cost saving from cutting our elected representatives has been wiped out nearly three times over by the 260 additional Tory Peers in the House of Lords.

If the genuine desire is to equalise the number of voters in each seat, then this could have been done without reducing the number of seats. The reason given for making constituencies more equal in terms of voter numbers is so that each person’s vote carries the same weight as any other. But this is never going to happen in our First Passed the Post system. My vote in a safe Labour seat or your vote in a safe Conservative seat will never carry as much weight as someone else voting in a swing marginal. Currently, a few voters in a small number of constituencies make all the difference when it comes deciding which party will form the next Government. The only way to truly make sure everyone’s vote has the same value is to bring in a proportional election system.

The rules which have governed the boundary review are also deeply flawed. It’s not clear why size of constituency should be based on number of registered voters rather than number of people living in the constituency. After all, the MP has to represent everyone living in the area, not just those registered to vote. Having decided that voter numbers is an appropriate measure, the review has been carried out according to the electoral register in December 2015.

Getting people to register to vote is not an easy job – I used to help my Dad compile the register of electors when I was a teenager and some people then were notoriously difficult to pin down. It is well known that young, transient urban populations are not fully represented on the register of electors. Note how this coincides with the group of people who are also the most disenfranchised from our democratic system. Since then, instead of introducing measures to make it easier to register and easier to vote, and helping local councils to track down all their voters, the government has made it harder to register by introducing individual instead of household registration. Estimates suggest that 1 million people were already missing off the electoral register in February 2015.

This system disenfranchises the mobile, the young and those in private rented accommodation – mainly those living in urban areas. At a time when the urban population is growing quickly, the number of registered voters in these areas is not keeping pace. A parliamentary boundary review is expected. If it takes place after millions of people are removed from the electoral register we could see the biggest transfer of parliamentary representation and political power from urban to rural areas for more than a century.

So we have a review falsely presented to us as a money saving exercise, apparently trying to improve democracy, while at the same time, literally disenfranchising millions of young people and urban dwellers. It’s no wonder that seats are being taken from urban areas because voters in these areas are disappearing down the cracks too.

The Boundary Commission is working with one hand not knowing what the other is doing. The proposals are made based on ward boundaries as of May 2015, but a previous review has just changed ward boundaries in Sheffield, so the boundaries in the constituency review are already out of date.

I did use the word gerrymandering during a rant-y phase on Facebook. The boundary commission is set up as an independent body. Perhaps it is making the best of a bad job. Urban areas tend to return Labour MPs, so it does feel like an attack on one party, but the rules of the review and other changes to the registration process have set it up to make skewed decisions. But tinkering with boundaries is never going to deliver greater democracy, and certainly not going to bring more power to the electorate. Only some version of proportional representation is going to do that. But this means that those in power will need to surrender some of it, and why on earth would they do that

What happens now?

This is me, just pouring it all out. It’s a bit rough and ready, raw, like I feel today.

I can’t believe this day has actually come, but I also knew it was coming. We have actually gone and voted to leave the EU. A vote by older people has betrayed the voice of the young who wanted to stay. But it was also a vote by the poor, the working class, the left-behind. Those who feel betrayed by austerity, who feel under threat from people moving into their communities who are different. People in areas where schools can’t attract teachers and surgeries can’t attract GPs. Where jobs are scarce, where cuts to benefits bite hard and where council cuts are felt the keenest.

So – what happens now? Will we build a hospital a week with the £350million a week we supposedly now have at our disposal? No – because we don’t actually have that much at our disposal because the figure was a fallacy anyway. And Farage has already said that to suggest we could be spending this money on the NHS was a ‘mistake’. Hm.

What does happen now? Sterling is already worth 9% less. We are already 9% poorer in the world. Which businesses will invest in our economy now our relationship with the mass market of Europe is now in doubt? Sunderland were afraid to declare in case they upset Nissan. Will Nissan pull out? Other manufacturers? I’m guessing the French won’t be building our nuclear power station now?

I can’t see how the future will make things any better for those who feel betrayed and disenfranchised now. What happens now to all those EU citizens currently living and working here? and what happens to those Brits living and working in the EU? Do we have to swap in a ratio of 2:1 hard working EU citizens from schools, hospitals and businesses for elderly, retired Brits? What happens to our NHS? To our European Health Insurance on holiday in Europe?

What happens to those workers’ rights which EU law protects? Do we trust whoever comes next in this country’s government to honour them? What happens to the European Convention on Human Rights? As we’re leaving the EU we can leave that too. Will a so-called British Bill of Rights really secure our rights? Remember, we helped write the ECHR – what’s wrong with it now?

We will no longer be able to stand with our neighbours to fight climate change and protect the environment. What happens to our clean beaches? To our heritage sites and sites of special scientific interest? To our ability to influence and drive forward reforms to save the planet?

Will we really now act with compassion towards refugees? Now people actually have to reach our shore to claim asylum, will more drown in the Channel? Or die in the Chunnel? What happens to those waiting at Calais? Will the French just send them over? Or send them back? Now we are acting alone and can keep out ‘economic migrants’ will we really welcome those in need escaping war and persecution in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea…? In my heart, I don’t believe we will.

I read one person’s reason for leaving was the EU’s unfair trade rules making life almost unliveable for African farmers. Well – no we have no chance of making EU rules fairer. And what of our own trade rules as they emerge? Will we protect our own farmers? I think we will as it seems much of the leave campaign was driven by farmers wanting to escape the EU agricultural policy. Will there be fairness and compassion to support African farmers at the expense of our own? What do you think?

Today I believe we are all poorer – in Britain and in the rest of Europe. Leave keep talking about the United Kingdom, but I don’t believe we will be a United Kingdom for much longer.

My husband is pretty upset with those who have led us down this path. But I am just sad. Sad for my children’s future, who feel betrayed. Sad for our country and how we feel about ourselves. Delusions of grandeur but about to cut ourselves off from friends and neighbours to try to regain something we never had and not realising what we’ve lost.

I am deeply sad that the outpouring of love and grief after the murder of Jo Cox MP could not translate into a desire to move forwards with reconciliation and unity. We have moved significantly politically to the right as a country. How did a fringe political party become mainstream policy? How have we embraced a ‘them and us’ policy? A narrative of ‘othering’ those who are different?

Where do we go from here? Who will look after those places once regenerated by EU funding? Who will rebuild our relationship with Paris, Berlin, Prague, where I get the impression all they feel is bewilderment? Who will stand with them against the far right? Are we in a place to rebuild? To regroup? Will we actually listen to those who voted to leave because they are beleaguered – do we have the political will do make their lives better? Or will there be more cuts, more austerity, more division?

I’ve poured it all out. Now all we can do is watch and pray.

Well – OMG – as I’m writing, David Cameron has resigned!! Is this worse?? Does this meant we’ll now get Boris Johnson and Michael Gove? A new PM by October

 

I’m in!

EUflagWith 5 days to go to the EU referendum, this may be a perhaps a little late. But it no longer seems tenable to host a blog about politics without commenting on the biggest political issue of the day. Indeed, the biggest political decision most of us will make in our lifetimes.

Despite knowing for months how I was going to vote, I’ve put off writing a blog because I felt I didn’t have all the answers or the expert knowledge. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped most people who have got involved in the debate. And the nearer the vote comes, the more I realise how important the issues are. So the time has come to stop hiding behind excuses. It’s time to say I’ll be voting to Remain in the EU and to untangle the arguments to show you why.

Capitalism

I’ve never really understood why the call to leave the EU should come so strongly from the Conservative party. Our modern neo-liberal capitalist society is epitomised in the EU. A free market unfettered by trade barriers and tariffs. A place where the price of goods and services are set by the market, just as wages are. Where jobs are created by the supply and demand of the market, and people are free to move to where the jobs are. The capitalist free market works only where you have free movement of goods, capital and people and the EU is a massive free market zone. If that’s what you believe in, why on earth would you want to leave it?

Actually, I suspect most of those on the Leave side don’t really want out of this neo-liberal paradise. They have other reasons for leaving, and are busy trying to make sure that we will still be able to be a part of this unfettered market by negotiating our own individual trade deal when we leave. However, if we really want to continue with a tariff-free trading arrangement for our goods and services into the EU, we are going to have to agree to stick with the free movement of capital and people too. That’s how it works. That’s how it works for Norway, and for Switzerland. We’re not going to get a better trade deal with the EU by refusing to sign up to all the rules of the club.

Running close alongside this argument, is the idea that leaving the EU will free us up from the EU’s bureaucracy and red tape. Now, this is something I have dealt with in a blog. In short, if we want our goods and services to be acceptable to an EU market, they will have to comply with EU regulations. And most of this red tape is more like gift ribbon, protecting workers’ rights, quality assurance, our health and safety and our environment.

I’m really not a fan of neo-liberal capitalism, but we’ll still be stuck with it even if we leave the EU. So that’s not the argument for me.

Social Chapter

Somewhat paradoxically, the EU is also the source of much that has a left-wing feel about it. I guess that’s what happens when you’re working with the French. Things like the Social Chapter, protecting pregnant and part-time workers, and the European Working Time directive, protecting over-time pay. Not every flavour of government in this country would work to bring about these kinds of protections, so I’m glad of the EU in this case.

Spending moneyP1000049

During the debate, there has been a lot of talk about the amount of money it costs us to be
part of the EU. The figures have been hotly disputed and like has not been compared with like. But it is clear that the amount of money that leaves the UK and goes to Brussels is a very small percentage of government spending (less than 2%). And a lot of it comes back. A lot of it comes back to things that I don’t believe the current government would spend it on, and things I know for sure that previous governments of the same type wouldn’t have spent it on. Having lived there for 14 years, I saw transformation in Liverpool through EU money, as Capital of Culture and other projects. And we also found out that one Mrs T’s preferred option for Liverpool was one of ‘managed decline’.

Now I’m in Yorkshire, where the local news compared money leaving the region for Europe to money coming in. Pound for pound (or euro for euro!) more money goes to the EU per head for Yorkshire and Humberside than comes back in inward investment. But financial benefits of the resulting jobs from that investment is harder to quantify. Would the same money have been spent in the region by the UK government if it hadn’t got to Europe? It seems unlikely, as the region received 3% less government spending than the national average. It seems the EU is more likely to deliver than any so-called Northern Powerhouse.

Leave campaigners can suggest all kinds of things they would like to spend money on which is saved by leaving the EU. But only whoever is in power if we leave will actually decide where that money goes. Economists predict our national income will shrink if we leave. If so, any savings will be swallowed up in a smaller economy. But even if there is some left to spend, George Osborne doesn’t have a strong track record of generosity to the needy, and in this arena, I trust Boris Johnson and Michael Gove even less.

Do I really mind giving money to the EU? Actually, no. I’m sure there are inefficiencies and wastage. (Is it really a good idea to decamp to Strasbourg every few weeks?) But just as our money comes back to us in funding for research, and investment in deprived places etc, so our money is spent on even more of these projects in other EU countries where the need is even greater than ours.

Democracy

There are complaints that the EU is undemocratic. Only one of the bodies involved in legislating is unelected – the European Commission which proposes and drafts EU legislation. It functions rather like our civil service. EU heads of government (the European Council) set EU priorities, and the EU parliament and council of ministers debate and vote on legislation.

EUstructure
How the EU works

I’m afraid I can’t get too worked up by this argument, when we live daily with our own ‘democratic deficit’ in the UK. A system which returns governments elected by only around a third of those who voted and less than a quarter of all those eligible to vote has a democratic deficit of its own. Both need reform, but that’s never going to happen from the outside.

Perhaps there is an EU democratic deficit, but mainly on our part. How many people know who their MEPs are? Have you ever written to them, asked them to intervene on your behalf? I’ve had a great response from my MEP, Linda McAvan, when I’ve contacted her. She’s been involved in bringing about legislation to regulate the mining industry (top culprits in sucking resources out of poor countries) and making sure minerals used in electronic technology are traceable and haven’t been used to fund wars (so-called conflict minerals).

Standing together

I’ll admit this is a bit niche, but it is the kind of the thing the EU can do, which countries on their own can’t. Which finally, after two pages of this stuff, brings me to the real reason why I’m in. Maybe we could do this on our own, but we can do it much better together.

Immigration has coloured and clouded this debate from the start – as it has UK politics for a while. We haven’t debated this issue wisely or well. There is a lack of clarity but plenty of shouting.

I’ve done quite a bit of shouting myself, mostly at the telly, mostly about words. But words matter, and lots of words in this debate are used interchangeably, when they shouldn’t be. So I’m actually going to start with the word ‘refugee’. The crisis facing Europe at the moment is a refugee crisis, not a migrant crisis. The streams of people desperate to enter Europe are fleeing violence, war, persecution and starvation. Mostly they come from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Their homes have been destroyed, they are not safe because of their religion or their politics, or because their government is attacking them or is unable to prevent others from attacking them. Their children cannot go to school, they cannot access medicines or food. By any measure, these people need our help, they need refuge, the country they call home is no longer safe, and they have a right to ask for safety elsewhere.

There is not one country which could help all of these people, though it looks like Germany has tried. But the EU could and should act together and provide refuge and safety. I want to stand in solidarity with my European neighbours to act in support of those who are fleeing. But actually it feels like we have already left Europe on this issue, refusing to agree to welcome our share of needy people, opting out of agreements to help. The EU has not handled this situation well. But I believe in the UK we have handled it even less well, and it is this lack of solidarity and sense of humanity which has made it worse.

All of this is quite different to people moving to the UK to look for work or opportunity. Most of this is pretty well regulated, certainly when it comes to people from outside the EU. And I think I’ve already dealt with EU migration in the discussion above. I don’t believe for a minute that the EU will give us any kind of trade deal without including the free movement of people. So if we want to trade with the EU – in or out – it won’t make any difference.

There are other global issues where we need to continue to stand together to make a difference. The biggest crisis facing the world right now is climate change. We will make much more progress in cutting carbon emissions and halting global warming if we work with the EU than if we work alone. We’ve already benefitted from the EU’s work on the environment now that we have clean beaches to enjoy. So we know we can make a difference. I guess the EU could carry on this work without us, but we have a crucial role to play within the EU. We can be leaders on this issue in terms of technology and our grassroots movements of activists. If we stand alone, we are both poorer for it.

Who are we?

I think we have forgotten that we are in the EU not just for what we can get out of it, but also for what we contribute to it. And here, I’m not talking about money. What does it say about us if we decide to stand alone? I think we already know a bit how it feels because we have been so ambivalent about the EU for so long already. We already know we are unloved because no-one votes for us in the Eurovision Song Contest! To leave is to shut the door on friendship, partnership and working together. Sure, we can still work with our European partners, but what is the message we are giving off?

To leave is to say that we don’t belong, that Europeans are different, foreigners, other, and we don’t want any of that over here, thank you. Where is our famed British tolerance when we turn our backs on our neighbours? To remain is to say that we want to be part of a European future together. We do belong, we have shared history, shared ambitions for peace and stability in the future of our continent. We need to choose to stay, and we need to choose to embrace Europe. To give of our passions, of our wisdom and yes, of our wealth. To support parts of Europe where poverty stubbornly digs its heels in. To stand firm with our neighbours against the rise of hate-filled, racist far-right ideologies. To remember that we are a country of compassion and take care of frightened people looking for a safe place to call home. To get our hands dirty and get involved and be prepared to say we are European.

If we leave, both the UK and the EU will be diminished, as the poem below expresses so well. I hope and pray that after next Thursday the bell will not be tolling for us.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

John Donne

Tax havens and the wealthy

tax-haven-protestDid you see the desert island appear in Trafalgar Square last Thursday? Christian Aid, Oxfam and Action Aid all came together to create a sandy tax haven to highlight the issue of tax dodging while David Cameron was hosting world leaders at his anti-corruption summit.

By hiding profits, obscuring who owns what and disguising where business is actually carried out, big business and rich individuals can avoid paying the tax that is due, and cream off billions of pounds of what is rightfully public money. And if you think the British economy could do with a bit more money to spend on elderly care, schools and hospitals, just think what that money could do in Zambia or Haiti.

What campaigners would really like to see is a public register of the real people behind company names. Company names are often just shell names for the real interests behind them, and there can be many layers, but finding out who really benefits from the money a company makes (the ‘beneficial ownership’) would shine a light into the dark places where money is hiding. A few countries (including the UK) have agreed to publish a public register of beneficial ownership. But others have only agreed to make this information available to those with a ‘legitimate need’ ie tax enforcers. Good, but not as good as full accountability to civil society. Crucially, those digging their heels in are the British Overseas Territories. Cameron could insist on a public register, but he has not. We must mark this down as ‘Could do better’.

Cameron did manage something though. Foreign companies of property in the UK will have to declare these assets and make transparent who is the ultimate owner, or beneficiary. This is particularly relevant for many hugely expensive properties in London, and has caused quite a stir. Apparently these wealthy owners would prefer to be anonymous and this rule change would make them sell-up. This is being presented as a ‘bad thing’. But as far as I can tell, super-rich foreign investors have caused London property prices to be so hugely inflated that getting rid of them would be a good thing. For more on this, try this article by Giles Fraser, a bit old now but the issues haven’t changed much.

Critics of the public register say it will drive ‘wealth creators’ away, and it was this phrase that finally drove me to my keyboard. It’s one of those phrases that appears everywhere in defence of tax cuts for the rich and austerity for the rest of us. But it’s a phrase that is carefully designed to pull the wool over our eyes. For who in this country truly creates wealth? Those who make things or build things, those who create, those who make something of value from raw materials or their own creative talents. In other words, working people. The rich do not create wealth, they mainly inherit it, and then hide it in an off-shore bank account. Or they become rich on the back of the workers who have created and enabled them to build their fortune.

Rich people don’t boost the economy. Their money is largely static, invested in buildings, or in a complicated tax-free arrangement. But put money in the hands of ordinary people, and they will spend it, on goods and services, on holidays, on food, on the essentials as well as on leisure.

I’ll be glad if so-called wealth creators are driven away. Then we might be able to restore some sanity to the housing market and leave space for the rest of us to truly create a society where the wealth can be spent and shared more fairly.

Who is my neighbour?

pastyI had the following conversation with two friends, well, Mums of my son’s friends, so I’m only just getting to know them. A colleague of one of the Mums was doing the “Greggs run” on the way to work, and saw a homeless man outside the shop. She was moved to want to help him, so she gave him a pasty on her way out and got on the bus. But then, the man ran up to the bus, banged on the window where she was sitting and shouted “This is what I think of your pasty!” And he dropped it onto the ground and stamped on it.

The colleague was shocked and upset, and my friends were outraged at the man’s response. But I found myself unsure how to respond. Why was this reaction so outrageous? Because we think the man should have been grateful? Grateful for something that may not have been what he wanted or needed at that time? Grateful for whatever he can get, beggars can’t be choosers, and all that?

At what point does a person lose the right to decide what kind of help he or she can ask for, accept, or refuse? Surely the answer to that is at no point. Unsolicited help is good to offer, but equally may be refused. We would all prefer to be asked what it is that we want or need, and being homeless doesn’t change that.

Perhaps we are outraged not by the refusal to accept the pasty per se, but the way it was refused? Do we judge the man for being rude? How many other unsolicited pasties has he been offered? Perhaps he is vegetarian, but perhaps we judge that is not acceptable to insist on being vegetarian and homeless? Perhaps he felt judged as the offer of food suggests that he couldn’t be trusted to spend money appropriately? Who is it who decides what is appropriate for an adult to spend money on?

I realise that I have only come up with a load of questions, and no answers. The only realistic answer I have is that we should ask people what they want before we offer, or at the very least, make sure our help is actually an offer that can be refused and not insisted upon. But I didn’t feel able to say this to my friends. I only managed something vague about not knowing what had gone on before and sympathising with hurt feelings.

Meanwhile, my own response to homelessness remains inadequate. I’ve been shocked at how many people I’ve seen on the streets in Sheffield – many more than I ever saw in Liverpool. I buy the Big Issue occasionally (but not always) and I’ve even set up a regular payment to a project that supports homeless people in Sheffield. But I still cycle passed people sitting on cardboard boxes in the pouring rain outside the station and the guy who is always in the subway (under the ring road by Waitrose, if you know it) and use the fact that I’m on my bike as a way to avoid eye contact.

Meanwhile, it’s Christian Aid Week, the annual big fundraising initiative for Christian Aid. This year our theme is ‘loving our neighbours’, from the story of the Good Samaritan, told in Luke 10. The first day of the 7 day reflection asks the question ‘Do you need to expand your understanding of who your neighbour is?’ Yes indeed, not just the families in Bangladesh whose homes are regularly entirely washed away by flooding, but also the man I cycle passed nearly every day in the subway.

Building momentum for the Living Wage at Persimmon Homes

I was shaking so much that I needed to hold onto the chair in front of me to keep my voice steady. I could feel myself getting hotter and more flustered. I needed to gather my thoughts.living wage logo

What terrible fate was about to befall me? Nothing less than the shareholders of Persimmon Homes responding to my question at their AGM about the Living Wage! I’d gone off script from my carefully prepared notes and for a moment I couldn’t bring the words on the page to order. But there was no hostile reaction, only kind patience. I found my place, and supported by the written word, I laid out my arguments before the board.

We’d already had a lively discussion about the remuneration package due to the board, but had the board considered pay at the bottom of the scale? In the light of the company’s skills shortage, would it consider implementing a Living Wage? Why had it not responded to a letter about this matter from ShareAction and other investors representing £40million in assets? Would the company be prepared to discuss this further with ShareAction and the Living Wage Foundation?

The chair, Nicholas Wrigley, gave a fair answer to my question. Yes, the board had considered the Living Wage. He thought they had responded to correspondence about the matter, but would look into it to make sure. They had reviewed their policy around wages, and in particular, wanted to bring more people in house and rely less on sub-contractors. But finding they were compliant with the new Government minimum wage, they felt this was enough. This was a predictable course of wage increases which they could plan for, whereas the trajectory of the Living Wage would be uncertain.

I was feeling much more confident by now, and I’d remembered to keep hold of the microphone. As the Living Wage is based on the cost of living, by not implementing it, Persimmon Homes was just passing on the uncertainty to their staff who have to deal with cost of living rises. Did Persimmon not have a responsibility to their employees? The chair assured me that they took the welfare of their workforce very seriously and were considered to be a caring employer. This includes aiming to use fewer subcontractors, establishing more apprenticeships and a ‘Combat to Construction’ scheme helping ex-service personnel find employment.

After the meeting concluded, I approached the chair and the rest of the board on the top table. Nicholas Wrigley was keen to assure me that wages and the Living Wage were constantly under review. I had the chance to explain a little more about how the Living Wage is calculated, and suggest that more discussion with ShareAction and the Living Wage Foundation might help them understand better how it works. Jeff Fairburn, CEO, said he would talk to his HR director, Richard Latham, and agreed that a conversation with the Living Wage Foundation would be helpful. He also said that he thought a response to a letter on this matter had been sent. I was able to give him a copy of the letter sent last year, with the name and address for the reply highlighted. I’m confident that Persimmon will now respond to ShareAction about the Living Wage.

The CEO agreed to let me take a selfie with him in it, much to the amusement of the board, especially when I said I was going to tweet it! And then it was all over. It felt good to be back in the bar with a glass of wine in my hand!

So there you have it – a day in the life of a foot soldier in the AGM army. It’s quite a buzz! I wasn’t on the frontline on my own. The AGM was at York racecourse, and I attended with a colleague who lives in York, so I could rely on her for logistics and note-taking. The racecourse is a great venue, and representatives of the company were very helpful and friendly before the meeting – we were there as shareholders after all. And even after putting them on the spot with our question, we were treated with courtesy and respect. There’s nothing like bringing the issue out into public right in the heart of the business in question. I’m intrigued by what the other shareholders thought – no-one approached us afterwards. But I’m confident of a response from Persimmon and looking forward to another conversation soon!

I attended this AGM as a proxy shareholder for ShareAction. My blog also appears on their website, where you can find out more about the AGM army!

The Big Church Switch

the-big-shiftHow long has changing to a green energy supplier at home been on my to-do list? Too long! So having someone do all the hard work and find a good deal for me was too good an opportunity to miss. So at last I’ve made the switch.

But the trouble when you want to change the world is that it is all too much for one person. I can’t tackle global climate change on my own. So I was determined to do what I could to persuade our church to join in with Christian Aid’s campaign and make the Big Church Switch to clean energy.

As a family, we’ve only been going to our church for a couple of years and it still feels fairly new to us. It is a big, busy church, with lots of services, home groups and a myriad other weekly activities. Many, many things compete for attention, and Christian Aid is only one of them. I wouldn’t like to guess where climate change fits in!

I bided my time – I needed to find the right moment, when climate change would be recognised as a priority. And here was my chance. We held a series of lectures through Lent with theological reflections on contemporary issues, including one on the topic of climate change! It was a thought-provoking evening exploring how contemporary materialistic measures of success and what makes for a good life drive consumption and the exploitation of the Earth – our shared home.

How much impact could the church have if we truly valued a good life based on relationships and community? Our values are revealed in where we spend our time and money, so it’s time I thought to put our money where our prayers and hopes are; with our neighbours suffering the devastating impacts of climate change, both around the world and in recent times closer to home too.

Perfect! Immediately after the lecture I approached our vicar. Would the church review where it bought its energy from and consider switching to a renewable tariff? Thereby taking our money away from dirty fossil fuels driving climate change and towards something that builds a brighter future, something that can help all God’s people to flourish.

Apparently this would be a matter for the church’s Executive committee, which happened to be meeting the following Monday! “Write me a briefing paper,” the vicar said. I knew I wouldn’t need to do that, because the perfect thing was already in Christian Aid’s Church Contact Pack! I could put it in his hand on Sunday morning. I told him it was a joint initiative between Christian Aid and Tearfund (that helped as the church supports Tearfund too). At this stage, all we would need to do would be to register our interest, and when the quote came back it would be up to us to accept or decline. It might even be cheaper than our current bill, though our vicar was confident that the committee would be happy to pay a little more if it felt it was doing the right thing.

On the Sunday, I gave the briefing papers to the vicar and the treasurer. On the Monday, the matter was discussed by the Exec committee. By Tuesday I got an email asking me to register the church’s interest, copied to the Finance manager who deals with the bill. We’re nothing if not efficient once we’ve made up our mind! Unfortunately we’ve come to a bit of a standstill for now. I’ve registered our interest as a church, but I can’t complete all our details just yet as the Finance manager isn’t well.

Despite this minor delay, I’ve had a really positive response from everyone in the church who has been involved so far, summed up by the sentiment ‘thank you for taking this forward’. We believe that looking after the creation is a part of our faith and ministry, but it’s not always easy to express that as a church. And it’s not always easy for a church full of busy people to find someone who wants to make this a priority. It was great to be able to take a very practical step as an immediate response to our Lenten challenge. I hope we can hold up our corporate action as a church as an example for everyone to follow as we find ways to work out in practice our ministry to care for our creation.

Red Tape

It does appear right now that the only thing that is happening in the entire world is that the UK is having a referendum about its EU membership. I’m pretty sure this is not the case (that nothing else is happening, because we are having a referendum!), but it still feels remiss not to contribute to the debate. The topic is extensive and the EU deals with a massive range of issues, so I’ll stick to what I know and talk about woMrMessyrds.

The words I particularly want to talk about are ‘red’ and ‘tape’. How we love to sigh about bureaucracy and regulation and how everything is tied up with red tape. I always end up picturing that moment when you pull off too much sellotape and it ends up sticking to itself, and then getting worse when you try to pull it apart so you end up with a sticky useless ball of tape. And then my imagine runs on a bit until I see someone entirely wrapped in tape looking somewhat like Mr Messy.

gift-box-with-red-bowBut there are better images for red tape. My mum always used to get special sticky tape for wrapping Christmas presents, usually red with pictures of holly, to make our Christmas wrapping that bit more special. Or what about a big red bow on top of an exquisite box of chocolates or other expensive gift. Red tape doesn’t seem so bad now.

So what is all this terrible red tape from Europe that we are so desperate to free ourselves from? Perhaps we would like to rid ourselves of safety at work regulations which mean we can all have the ridiculous luxury of going to work in the morning confident that we will also come home safely and not be dead. Or perhaps we would like to abandon legislation about working hours, rests, breaks and holidays. Because we’d all like to spend more time at the office without getting properly remunerated, and we’re all keen to be treated by health professionals who haven’t slept properly, and we’d love to be driven long distances by or share the road with drivers who haven’t taken a break for hours. Maybe we’d like to reduce the safety standards attached to our food products, because it’s not that important to be confident that what we’re eating and drinking isn’t bad for us. Or perhaps it’s the environmental protections and safety standards that we’d like to dilute, because we don’t really care about having clean rivers or safe air to breath. Or finally, perhaps it’s those pesky human rights that we’re so fed up of, interfering with our right to live our life the way we want to.

First, a word about human rights. The stay/remain choice about the EU has nothing to do with human rights. The European Court of Human Rights is a wider organisation than the EU, and includes countries which are not members of the EU. We have signed up to ECHR independently of our membership of the EU. Whether we vote to stay or remain in the EU, we will still come under the ECHR. We have signed up to the highest standard of protection for our civil liberties and those of our fellow humans around us, and we will remain signed up to this whatever happens on June 23rd. So this is not red tape but a red herring.

But back to the other red tape. Or, as I prefer to see it, the red silk ribbon round the gifts of protection at work, protection of the environment, quality standards, safety standards and peace of mind. Whether we are in Europe of out of Europe, I am sure most of us would prefer to keep this kind of security, high standards for what we consume, and protection of our environment and wellbeing. And if we want to leave Europe but still trade with Europe, then everything we make to sell (both goods and services) will still have to conform to these kinds of standards, or they won’t be allowed on the European market. But instead of playing our part in setting these standards, they will, instead, be imposed on us with no say. Shall I tell you who would really like to see a watering down of the rigorous quality and safety imposed by Europe? The Americans. They’d love to be able to get at our market without having to meet our high standards. That’s what TTIP is all about – the Transatlantic Trade Partnership which the Americans are trying to negotiate with Europe, so they can impose themselves on our markets without having to comply to our standards.

So, personally, I’d rather keep my gift wrapped regulations than decide which part of our society’s health, wellbeing and safety I’m prepared to give away.

Staffing the NHS

Nurse Jessica
Latest solution to nurse staffing crisis

The NHS isn’t really the subject of this blog, but once again I find myself compelled to comment. Mainly about the total failure of joined up thinking coming from the Government…

I used to work as a speech and language therapist. I stopped finding it remarkable when I used to go onto wards in the afternoon to find only one trained nurse in charge of 3 bays of 5 beds and 3 siderooms. But with no official guidelines as to what constituted a safe level of care, it was hard to make a case for more staff. The Mid Staffs scandal changed all that. The problems at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust shocked us all. Poor patient care, lack of dignity for vulnerable people, deaths which should have been avoided. There have been extensive inquiries, which found, among other things, that inadequate staffing levels played a significant part in the problem. Recommendations were made as to what safe staffing levels might be, and the Government told hospitals to increase the number of nurses on the wards accordingly.

Fast forward three years. The Government is now telling hospitals they need to cut back staffing levels, including nurses on the wards, in order to deal with huge financial deficits in most trusts. Patient safety and high standards of patient care can once again be sacrificed on the altar of balanced books.

Let’s look a little closer at these deficits. Far and away the biggest expenditure in the NHS is on staff salaries. And a significant proportion of the money spent on staffing is spent on agency staff; agency staff who are needed because there are not enough qualified nurses (or doctors) directly employed by the NHS to fill all the shifts required. I think it would be very revealing to ask why people choose to work as a locum or via an agency, rather than taking a regular job. But for whatever reason, there is a shortage of trained nursing staff available to fill posts.

Finally, let us consider one more piece of recent Government policy regarding the NHS. It concerns nurse training. Aha! No doubt this is a policy designed to encourage more people to train to be nurses and so eventually overcome staff shortages! Well, not exactly. It is the decision to scrap bursaries for student nurses and midwives, and instead replace them with loans, making it much more expensive for anyone wanting to train and therefore creating an additional barrier for anyone considering the profession.

Maybe this isn’t a failure of joined up thinking. Maybe it all joins up very nicely, forming a perfect pathway to privatisation, with a few lucrative deals for some along the way.