Tag Archives: campaigning

Lifting the gagging law?

Bearing WitnessThis tweet today from Christian Aid has gladdened my heart. It looks like there is finally some action to change the Lobbying Act, which effectively silences charities from ‘political’ campaigning in the 12 months before a general election, while doing nothing to stop the crushing influence of money and big business on government. I know, it’s odd what makes me happy!

More than 100 charities have signed a letter to civil society minister Tracey Crouch, calling for the Lobbying Act (known as the gagging law) to be overhauled. They call it a “confusing and burdensome” piece of legislation that “weakens democracy, rather than strengthens it” because those representing the marginalised and vulnerable have been “silenced”.

I’ve been on the receiving end of the confusion. In the run-up to the election in June, Christian Aid picked its way through the act and ended up advising members of staff that even their person social media accounts shouldn’t endorse a political party if it could be construed as speaking for Christian Aid. I looked at my Facebook page. It was also the run up to Christian Aid Week and the only posts there were about Christian Aid or the Labour party. For the sake of a fine, I had to choose. So, for the duration of the election I chose politics, feeling, rightly or wrongly, that whoever was in government would have more impact than me on the lives of the poorest wherever in the world they might be. But I was left unable to talk about or promote the fundraising I was doing for Christian Aid Week on my personal threads. I’ve only got a reach of 400 on Facebook, so I’m not making that much impact, but multiply that across all my colleagues in any charity who use social media and suddenly the impact is significant.

So the act is messy. But why should charities meddle in politics, rather than getting on with their core business of helping people? Actually, I believe that their core business of helping people is a political act, because it says that people are worth more than the system or situation that has left them in need. But above and beyond that, charities allow the voices of the marginalised and vulnerable to be heard. They have a unique perspective of how policies have an impact on those they are trying to help.

I’ve just spent the weekend at Greenbelt with Christian Aid. While we’ve been there, we’ve been talking about climate change. Actually, it turns out that the rest of the world was also talking about climate change, or trying not to talk about climate change. I didn’t really pick up the news about the flooding in Houston, Texas until I got home. But unprecedented catastrophic weather is a feature of the new world we are creating by pumping carbon into the atmosphere.

At Christian Aid we talk about climate change because droughts, floods and typhoons devastate lives and livelihoods. The work we do to help the poorest communities build their own routes out of poverty is stymied by the changes in the climate caused by the richest countries in the world. Those with the least responsibility for the change feel its impact the hardest and have the fewest resources to cope. If we are going to be true to our ambition to end poverty, then we also have to tackle climate change.

This weekend we’ve been focused on financial institutions especially banks. But we also include government policy and spending in our campaigning. We’ve campaigned to ask the Government to stop burning coal to generate electricity. We want better plans outlining how we are going to reach UK carbon reductions targets. We’d like to see investment in renewable energy technology. All of these asks are political. Each political party approaches them differently, and some not at all. But the Lobbying Act closes down discussion of each party’s offering, leaving Christian Aid to rely on general statements without serious discussion of the issues at stake.

It is not enough for charities to provide whatever services, help or development that are within their remit if they cannot also work to change what causes the problem in the first place. There will be no end to poverty unless the underlying structural causes of poverty are changed.

Here’s an example. We have great debates while we are at Greenbelt, late at night sitting outside our tents. This year we had one about tax credits – complex, unwieldy, but are they really good or bad? Yes, they redistribute money back to those who need it most, putting money in the pockets of the poor. Yet at what cost? The system has become more complex so that work makes you better off, but this leaves people confused, struggling to access what they are owed, and afraid of making mistakes and ending up with large sums to repay. But it has also failed to address the underlying injustice of poverty wages. People have more money, so wages do not have to increase. Tesco can turn a tidy profit and still pay workers a pittance because they are topped up by tax credits and so people can get by. And thus, the tax payer funds Tesco’s profit. I should say, Tesco are not the only culprit, just an obvious one.

Systemic, structural, political changes are necessary to solve ‘bigger than self’ problems like poverty and climate change. It is not rational that charities are not able to speak out about the conditions that create the situations that they are working to relieve. Shelter should be able to campaign for better housing policy and speak out when current policy is unjust. Food banks can see why people are going hungry and need emergency food and need to be able to call out the ideology that puts people in poverty. If we cannot do this, we collude with the causes of injustice and become part of the system that causes the poverty in the first place.

The space available for civil society to act is being squeezed. Dissent is part of democracy, to curtail it is to curtail our freedom. Yet that is what is happening. Public spaces are being privatised, the right to strike is being made more difficult, and in some professions removed altogether, registering to vote has become more complicated. The Lobbying Act is just another way for power to silence its critics, and it’s high time we broke that silence.

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Clean up our cash

I believe this is my 100th blog post! And to mark this momentous occasion, I’m hosting guest blogger, Hannah Seekings. She’s been volunteering in the Christian Aid office I work in, and was inspired by our campaigns training session on climate change.

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On the first Wednesday in February we met together to hear about “The Big Shift Campaign” from Luke Harman who is part of Christian Aid campaigns team.

The evening started by discussing all the success that we have achieved together so far. Christian Aid is part of a movement which has been advocating for change to be made to help stop global warming getting worse and slow the effects of climate change. Together we have made an impact. The UK government announced that by 2025 it would phase out the use of coal-fired power stations. We also witnessed the historic signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 where countries from across the world came together and agreed to limit the global temperature rise to only 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Furthermore, Luke mentioned how the UK and its actions have been mentioned in the Washington Post, showing that the UK is a real influencer and leading the way for a change in how we approach the response to climate change. There is such a great momentum for this issue and therefore we should be encouraged and keep pursuing change.

The next section of the evening we talked about the effects of climate change and how we can prevent the financing of the fossil fuel industries. We watched an insightful short video, which I’d encourage you to watch.

As many of you know, the climate is changing and this is greatly influenced by the burning of fossil fuels in industrialised countries. We believe that we must act in order to protect our planet. There should be a shift from industires such as coal, oil and gas to renewable energy sources such as wind farms and solar panels and move towards a zero-carbon world. However, to achieve this we need a Big Shift in the way our economy works. Money is a key factor in influencing whether we lock ourselves into more fossil fuel dependence or build a better world that we know is possible. The UK is a global financial hub. Shifting finance in the UK can create a huge momentum for global change.

“We all want to save for a rainy day but what happens if we are fuelling the storm”

The money that we keep in our banks in the UK collectively is trillions of pounds and is invested into a wide range of things. This includes investing in coal plants and subsiding fossil fuels. Christian Aid has written a detailed report about this titled which you can read here. It summarises why Christian Aid feels that asking banks to take responsibility is a good idea. It looks at individual banks, their policies on the environment and their strategies to help phase out the funding of fossil fuels.

High Street banks and pension fund managers rely on our customers to make a profit. We need to make sure that they use our money in a way that which helps create and sustain a low carbon economy. We need to do this as soon as possible.

Many banks, corporations and companies signed up to the “Paris Pledge for Action”. This is an outward sign that they support the objectives of the Paris Agreement and will actively help to achieve this.

Christian Aid wants to know what steps the banks are taking to achieve their Paris Pledge. Many banks are still financing the building of coal power stations which lock countries into a high carbon infrastructure. Furthermore, they are still financing oil and gas companies much more than they are renewable sources. To add to all this, many banks are reluctant to set up measurable targets to phase out support for fossil fuels. Christian Aid has focused on 4 major banks; Barclays, HSBS, Lloyds Banking Group and RBS, who we have researched and don’t think are doing enough to commit to helping reduce global temperatures.

So. What next? What can we do about this?

Luke laid out 3 easy steps that we can do to campaign as a response to this knowledge:

Step 1: Spread the word – strike up a conversation with your friends, neighbours, colleagues, people in your church about what they think about climate change. Give them a campaigns pack and invite them to explore this issue some more. Explain to them why this issue it matters and why you want to do something about it.

Step 2: Ask people to take action – invite them to come to your next campaigns evening, ask them to join you in writing a letter to your MP, be bold and encourage them to get on board with you!

Step 3: Take it to the banks – go down into your local branch and ask to speak to the manager and ask questions about their environmental policies and how they plan to phase out investments in fossil fuels, alternatively go in with a letter in hand addressed to the manager with this information. Even better, ask a few people to come with you.

We have lots of resources to help you contact our banks and keep them accountable. Be that writing a letter, or going into your local branch. What these banks do with private finances is the public’s business. Are they helping to preserve God’s creation?! Are they doing enough to reduce climate change?

Find out more here. If you are inspired to campaign to help clean up our cash and help reduce climate change then email campaigns@christian-aid.org and they can send over relevant resources and information to help you help the world.

For the love of

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Almost unprecedented winter storms damage the sea front and pier in Cromer, December 2013. Picture: Duncan Abel

It’s hard to be bothered too much about global warming when I’m sitting in my chilly kitchen in the middle of June wondering when summer will finally arrive. But I am bothered, and it figures on this blog, which is mainly concerned with poverty, equality and justice, because climate change is a justice issue.

Global warming, caused by the activity of people, is happening now. The 10 hottest years across the world have all occurred since 1998. Global warming is causing catastrophic climate change through systematic changes to global climate and weather patterns. This includes extreme cold, drought, flooding and the increasing strength and frequency of winds and storms.

The impact of climate change is not something we can leave to worry about in the future. Its impact is being felt already around the world. Glaciers, which provide vital water supplies, are retreating in South America. Drought leading to food scarcity is leading to hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, from Mali to Ethiopia. Rising sea levels are inundating low-lying countries like Bangladesh, where villages become uninhabitable and land uncultivable and people flee to the cities. The current refugee crisis in Southeast Asia will only worsen and spread as more land succumbs to the sea.

The one theme running throughout all these examples is that the impact of climate change is hitting hardest amongst the poorest. That’s why climate change is not just an environmental issue, or a health issue, or an economic issue, but a justice issue. The poorest are least able to cope with the devastating impact of drought or flood or storm because they are already living on the edge with limited resources to adapt. Not only this, but poor communities have also contributed the least to the carbon in the atmosphere which is causing the temperature to rise in the first place. In the UK, plenty people are outraged that the pain resulting from bankers’ folly and greed is being felt by the poor, sick and disabled when income and services are cut. We should feel this anger and outrage multiplied exponentially when it comes to the injustice caused by climate change.

In the dying days of the last parliament, a law was passed committing the UK to giving 0.7% of our national income to other countries as international aid. We should be rightly proud of this achievement. Britain may have many faults, but a generous spirit towards those in need has long been part of our identity. We do care what happens to our global neighbours, we are moved by their plight and our giving has transformed many lives. But all this is at risk of being undone if we do not roll back the tide of devastation wreaked by climate change.

So, let’s not negate our hard work in ensuring we are committed to generosity. Let’s take responsibility for our impact on this planet, being caused by the wealthy but being felt by the poor. Let’s recognise that climate change is a matter of justice, and a matter which needs to be addressed now, not in some dim and distant future.

Our government is committed to cutting carbon emissions (and we know how good they are at cuts!) by 80% by 2050. This will mean better energy efficiency at home and in businesses, and investment in renewable energy. But more than this, these kinds of carbon cuts need to be implemented around the world, and Britain needs to lead the way in talks being held in Paris at the end of the year. We also need to stand in solidarity with those poor communities whose lives are already being devastated by climate change. Britain must continue to support the International Climate Fund, which helps developing countries adapt to climate change. We also need to see climate change as a thread running through all the new Sustainable Development Goals as well as a specific goal to tackle climate change. Our government must take the lead to bring about these goals at the SDG summit in September.

So there is plenty that we can do as a nation. But what about as individuals? I’m sure there are many changes you have already made in your lifestyle in an attempt to be more environmentally friendly, and there’s lots more ideas all over the internet. But we can also bridge the gap between individual and national action. Government, after all, is made up of individuals, and each one represents a whole constituency full of individuals. We have a responsibility to hold them to account for the commitments they have already made, and to encourage them to take further steps to tackle climate change now. Governments don’t operate in a vacuum. A movement of people can create an environment which allows politicians to take bold action, knowing they are supported by their citizens.

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So I’m calling you to take action. I’ve talked about communities round the world whose lives and livelihoods are imperilled by climate change. I’m sure there are people and places close to your heart which are under threat, far away or close to home. So come and join me in London on June 17 to tell your elected representative about the people and places you love and why they must act to tackle climate change. Lots more information here. And if you can’t make it, you can write or arrange to meet your MP back at home.

Politics and knitting

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Well, I really couldn’t let this one go, could I? David Cameron’s new minister for civil society, Brooks Newmark, suggested that charities should stay out of the realm of politics. He added “The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.”

Well – where to begin? I’ve blogged before about charities and politics when people got in a huff about Oxfam’s Perfect Storm poster. But it’s worth going over these arguments again.

Brooks Newmark thinks that charities should “help others” and keep out of politics. But you can’t do one without the other. Let’s take the nation’s favourite topic, foodbanks. Someone comes to the foodbank in need of help and they are given a wonderful parcel of food which will last them three days, to get them through whatever crisis brought them in. Is this really all that foodbanks can and should do? Certainly, foodbanks themselves don’t think so. They ask what has caused the crisis and try to address this need. The most rapidly rising cause for people attending foodbanks is having their benefits sanctioned. The Trussell Trust (along with Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty) investigated and found not a host of people who couldn’t be bothered to fill in forms and attend interviews, but a series of punitive measures implemented without flexibility or human understanding for genuine matters such as bereavement, illness, or even the inability to be in two places at once. Actually, giving out food parcels isn’t helping people, in the long term. What would really help people would be a welfare system implemented fairly but with compassion. And so, the three charities produced a report, Below the Breadline, which launched at the same time as a Channel 4 programme, Breadline Kids, and that notorious Perfect Storm poster.

This is certainly getting involved with politics. If any charity wants to help people, then it really must get involved with the causes of whatever need they are trying to help. It’s the old adage about not getting so focused on pulling people out of the river that no-one goes upstream to find out who is pushing them all in. Unless we look at causes, we’re not really helping. Brooks Newmark suggested donors don’t want their money to be used for politics. But how many donors want to keep on giving, year after year, to a problem that keeps on getting bigger because no-one is addressing the cause? I would go as far as to say that not campaigning to address causes and structures results in collusion. Does feeding families in crisis mean that the government can get away with cutting off a family’s income because at least they won’t starve? Are foodbanks just propping up an unjust, unsustainable policy?

Apparently later, Brooks Newman issued a statement saying that he really meant “party politics”, but even this doesn’t bear scrutiny. What does it mean? And why shouldn’t charities be party political? If criticising government policy, as Oxfam did, is party political, then charities will have to be party political. And if one party’s policies promote the agenda of the charity, then shouldn’t the charity voice its support?

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But it was the knitting comment that finished me off. What a patronising way of describing the work that so many charities, day in, day out. And what a failure to understand the creative and political potential of knitting. Brooks Newmark must have been on holiday in August when 7 miles of pink knitting was stretched out between Aldermaston and Burghfield to campaign against nuclear weapons. He’s clearly never heard of guerrilla knitting, or seen any of the work of the Craftivist Collective. Or even the wonderfully creative knitted bikes made for the Tour de France. Knitting is subversive because its slow, hand-made nature rejects the instant, fast technological fix of capitalism. Protesting with knitting is thoughtful and peaceful and beautiful. I’ll be getting out my needles later and knitting Brooks Newmark a piece of my mind.

Is Climate Change Campaigning the job of a Development Agency?

Bearing Witness

I was in a discussion the other day about whether it was right for Christian Aid to get involved with campaigning about climate change. Between us, there was a consensus that climate change was a serious and significant issue needing to be addressed in the world today. We also recognised that the effects of climate change have a bigger and more devastating impact on people in poor countries than they do in richer countries. The question that divided us was whether Christian Aid should be one of the organisations to take this campaign on.

Christian Aid’s mandate is as a development and relief organisation. It is a mistake to think of it as a benevolent dispenser of charity, giving aid to the poor*. At times, in emergencies, giving stuff is the right thing to do. But most of the time, Christian Aid is involved with long-term development, helping people out of poverty for good. It works in partnerships all round the world, giving people the tools they need (physical and otherwise) to build their own futures.

One of the key roles Christian Aid plays is to empower people. One of the effects of poverty is that it takes away power, so poor people do not have a voice in their societies. They cannot change things if no-one listens. Christian Aid works hard to make sure people in poor communities do have a voice, a voice which they know how to use, so they can get a hearing about the things which affect them most. It seems to me that the issue of climate change cannot be ignored in this case. The lack of action to stop climate change suggests that most people are not listening to people who are suffering its effects. That’s why Christian Aid should speak out about climate change, giving the poor a voice to change things that are devastating their livelihoods and communities.

People and churches in the UK which support Christian Aid are also involved in these partnerships. Realising our mutual dependence on one another, making sure learning is a two-way process is another strength of the work that Christian Aid does. It is not just people in poor countries who find themselves being ignored when it comes to calling for action on climate change. Maybe the stories being told by those most affected will help the voices of those calling for action in the UK.

Christian Aid does not only help people to advocate for themselves in their own communities. It also advocates on their behalf when it comes to challenging global structures that perpetuate poverty. Recent campaigns on tax avoidance are a good example of this. Key to the tax campaign are calls for transparency, to shine a light on corrupt and unjust practices that allow the rich to get richer by finding ways to withhold taxes due to governments, rich and poor alike, though having a greater impact on those with less to start with.

But what does campaigning on climate change involve if not to shine a light on corrupt and unjust practices. Why is it that, despite scientific evidence which shows beyond reasonable doubt, that increases in carbon in the atmosphere are caused by humanity’s actions, many of those in positions of power are able to deny this and still get a hearing?

Once again, we are back to issues of power. Money buys power. The fossil fuel industry is able to pour millions of dollars (or pounds!) into lobbying governments, funding climate change denying “science” and ensuring it is allowed to go about its business unhindered. Even as I type, the EU is debating a deal which will allow multinational corporations to fine national governments if said government brings about legislation which has a negative impact on its profits (known as TTIP). Most of these debates are in secret, unreported and unknown.

To be able to unpack and dismantle the power structures and influences of the fossil fuel and energy industry would bring a transparency and accountability that would transform so many other industries and governments. Imagine a world unbeholden to Russia or the Middle East for oil. To be able to make economic decisions without bowing to pressure from the energy industry. Unfurling the grip that fossil fuel has on governments, politics and economic structures goes far beyond climate change. Think tar sands oil and Arctic drilling. Who would sanction this kind of activity unless they were terrified of losing the good will and economic power of the fossil fuel industry? Think about the destructive power of extractive industries (mining) in Africa – especially Nigeria – and then tell me that campaigning on climate change is not an issue of justice. Christian Aid has to be there.

 

*As an aside, I liked this article exploring the relationships and nature involved in “charity”.

Storm in a tea cup?

Oxfam storm

Did you see the Channel 4 Dispatches programme “Breadline Kids” broadcast last Monday (9th June)? It told the stories of three families which found themselves needing to use food banks so the kids didn’t go hungry. Instead of the programme stoking a (social) media outrage about children going hungry in Britain today, there was a storm about Oxfam’s poster used in conjunction with the programme to draw attention to a new report, Below the Breadline, about food banks produced by Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and Trussell Trust.

Oxfam was accused of attacking the Government instead of helping poor people. But even the way I’ve written that last sentence betrays how the way news is presented changes the way it is perceived. “Helping poor people” casts Oxfam in the role of all-powerful benefactor and leaves “the poor” as passive, helpless recipients. I could have written that Oxfam should have been “tackling poverty” instead of attacking the Government. It is the different ideas about what tackling poverty means that causes the debate.

I read with amazement the comments on Twitter from people no longer wanting to give money to Oxfam because, all of a sudden, Oxfam was too political. What had upset people so much? Suggesting that unemployment, high prices, zero-hours contracts, benefit changes and child care costs all contribute to the crises that cause people to need help like food banks. If people had jobs with reasonable hours and decent pay, affordable child care and a benefit system that provided a genuine safety net, then people wouldn’t need to give money to Oxfam for their work in the UK.

This is the heart of the issue for me. Poverty is political. It has individual causes at times, but mainly it is caused by decisions we (or our elected representatives) make about the way society is run. And its solutions are political as well. “Helping poor people” is only a short-term crisis solution – Trussell Trust will be the first to tell you this. Quite apart from demeaning and diminishing the resources that people have to help themselves, “helping poor people” is not enough. Unless we change the structures that keep people poor, we will need to go on giving money to Oxfam or rice pudding tins to food banks. Children will continue to go to school hungry and worry about whether there will be any meals at home over the weekend.

Charities like Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and Trussell Trust have a responsibility to speak out against the causes of the injustice that they are working to alleviate. This makes what they do political. And if the injustice is a result of the policies of whoever is in power, then charities will speak out against that government. As responsible citizens we can support them and speak out against injustice as we find it. Protest and campaigning is a key part of the struggle against poverty and injustice. Giving money might make us feel better for a while, but it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility or change the fundamental causes of injustice.

Calling to Account

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Last Friday it was time to put my money where my mouth is. I posted on this blog a few months ago about a campaign training event I went to with ShareAction and Christian Aid. If we have shares in a company, directly or via pension funds, then the company is investing our money, and we have the right to hold them to account. I previously wrote about a campaign to challenge pension fund managers, but the training also dealt with attending a company AGM to ask a question as a shareholder.

So, on Friday, I found myself, standing at the podium, as a corporate representative for ShareAction, ready to ask a question at the RSA AGM. My heart was thumping and my knees were shaking, but my voice was steady and the room was listening.

RSA is an insurance company, better known as More Than for personal insurance. They’ve had a bad year, making as big a loss last year as their profit the year before. There was a lot of hostility in the room towards the board from shareholders who had seen their dividend disappear. I’d expected to be intimidated by the board, but it was clearly the board which was on the defensive.

Louise, who came with me from ShareAction, had met me outside the trendy building in Central London, prepared all the paperwork, including the question, and filled me in on the company background. We signed in and then registered our questions. We already got a positive response from the team registering questions to our plan to ask the company about its tax arrangements. “I hope you get a good answer”, we were told. As a veteran of these occasions, Louise made me feel at home, and introduced me to another AGM campaigner preparing to challenge the company about its poor performance.

I asked my question about the company’s business in places used as tax havens, wanting to know if RSA had substantial business there, or just used them for tax minimisation purposes. Despite identifying the need for transparency, and the risk to the business of a tax avoidance scandal, the best answer RSA could offer was that it complies with all appropriate tax law. I tried to follow up suggesting that the issue was about more than compliance, but the board hid behind the need to manage their taxes for the benefit of the shareholder. Louise asked about climate change, but also followed up my question for me, eventually getting the board to admit that some of these subsidiaries were there for “corporate purposes”.

It was good to be able to directly ask a company whether they were using tax havens. I wasn’t sure how much difference this would make to the company’s actual behaviour, but Louise seemed to think that the evasive answering indicated that RSA was embarrassed by our question. Asking questions at an AGM is not going change things over night. It is one campaigning tool among many, aiming to raise awareness of issues with companies which might not otherwise consider these things, putting things like tax and climate change higher up the agenda, chipping away at accepted norms.

Would I do it again? Yes! Fitting in a trip to London has its own challenges, but there’s always the free lunch! Next time I’ll bring a bigger bag, as snaffling a couple of napkins full of flapjacks and brownies would seem to be the order of the day.

 

 

Hope for the Future

Hope for the Future

“Here is a mystery.  The world grows warmer.  Yet climate change has disappeared from the political agenda since 2010 in this country and around the world.  The longer term threats to the earth have been drowned out by the more imminent pressures of the global economic downturn.”

Bishop Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, speaking at Diocesan Synod last Saturday (8th March). Click on the title to follow the link to the full transcript of his speech, exploring some of the evidence for climate change and its likely devastating consequences. But he also spoke about our response to this in the context of hope. He launched a campaign, not just for Sheffield Diocese, but to go nationwide, aiming to get climate change back on the political agenda, so that we can renew the political will to do something about it. As well as our own personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, we are asked to write to our MP, asking them to commit to 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 in their party’s manifesto. You can take action on the Hope for the Future website, where you can read more about the campaign, which is being supported by other groups like Christian Aid, Tear Fund and Operation Noah. Let me know how you get on!

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.”

Another Tax Scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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