Tag Archives: Church Action on Poverty

It’s not over yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Make It Fair – time to tackle Tax Dodging

make tax fairWell, we’ve come a long way. Tax is making great progress along its pathway of rehabilitation back into society. To be sure, austerity has focused our minds. Now we’re really missing all those lovely things our taxes used to pay for (teachers, nurses, gritters, libraries, Sure Start centres) we’re severely unimpressed when some people and businesses don’t pay their fair share.

Conservative estimates (with a small c despite it being at the beginning of a sentence) reckon that the UK loses £35bn a year due to tax dodging. That should be enough to fix all the potholes in Sheffield’s roads and still have a bit left over for a few extra teachers and nurses. But it’s not just the UK. A few weeks ago, I was listening to Suzanne Matale from Zambia talking about the massive flow of money out of her country from tax dodging multi-national businesses. More than three times as much money leaves Africa for the rich west as is received in via international aid. Just think how many teachers, nurses and roads that would cover.

While we’re thinking, let’s reflect on why it has taken us so long to keep our promise to give 0.7% of our country’s income in overseas aid. It’s a great landmark to have reached, but why do we begrudge giving such a tiny proportion when so much more money is moving the other way? It seems so simple – if we could crack down on tax avoiders, in the long run, countries like Zambia would have plenty money to fund education, healthcare and road building, and eventually international support would no longer be needed.

But tax isn’t simple, as anyone who has wrestled with self-assessment, or even a tax credit application form will know. A lot of the time, businesses aren’t technically breaking the law. Some would say businesses have a duty to their shareholders to carry out effective “tax planning” (nice euphemism). We’ve even heard a member of the House of Lords declare that “everyone is doing it”.

So we need to take a different view. Our personal taxes are part of our contribution as citizens and solidarity with each other to build up the common good. It’s the same for businesses. It’s no longer enough to say that a business is beholden to its shareholders. It also must take care of its workers and other members of the community where it chooses to operate. It’s not acceptable for a corporation to extract all the copper from Zambia’s soil without paying its fair share of taxes to the benefit of the Zambian people. After all, where would business be without healthy, educated workers able to rely on the physical infrastructure of a country kept safe by a well functioning democracy and rule of law?

That’s the moral argument for paying tax. But it’s pretty hard challenging practice that isn’t illegal. This is where the Tax Dodging Bill comes in. A coalition of charities, including Christian Aid, Action Aid, Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, is calling for a new bill to close some of these scandalous tax loopholes and for the additional revenue generated to be spent on tackling poverty. Most of this kind of tax dodging is possible because companies operate in a number of countries with different tax rates and laws. So vast companies like Google, Starbucks and Amazon (and even lovely homegrown Boots) can get away with paying next to nothing in tax in the UK, while smaller companies only based here pay the full amount. This is hardly fair for businesses trying to compete, nor is it fair for the rest of us missing out on essential services which lost revenue can’t pay for.

Campaigners against tax dodging are calling for the newly elected government to introduce a bill within 100 days of coming to power, which would help tackle poverty in developing countries and to use the funds raised here to tackle poverty in our society. The Tax Dodging Bill addresses foreign multinational businesses trading in the UK. It would make it harder for these companies to dodge UK taxes by ensuring they can’t use tax havens to hide profits. The bill also calls for a rigorous review of tax breaks to ensure that any which remain are truly beneficial to the UK economy, society or environment. UK tax rules should not encourage UK companies operating overseas to avoid tax in developing countries, so the bill calls for the rules to be reviewed in this light. Campaigners also want to the bill to call for more transparency in the UK tax regime, including country-by-country reporting of tax and profit data, and tougher sanctions on tax avoiders and those who provide tax avoiding advice. Finally, the campaign is calling for political parties to commit to using the funds raised in the UK to tackle poverty here.

With the election just weeks away, and no-one ahead in the polls, all parties are still creating their final messages to appeal to voters. Right now, we the people have power and influence! If you’re fed up of seeing the big boys getting away with it, join the campaign. You can email all your local parliamentary candidates about tax and sign the Tax Dodging Bill petition.

Enough is enough. Tax dodging lines the pockets of the already wealthy while robbing the poor by diverting funds away from government services. Not everyone is doing it. The richer you are, the easier it is to pay less. That’s why we need a Tax Dodging Bill now. Let’s hear it for tax collectors – we’ve come a long way from Zacchaeus and the Beatles!

Telling Stories

“Poverty is at its most deadly when we no longer notice, we no longer care, we no longer even question it.” (Fogg, A. The Guardian, Dec 1)

http://www.theguardian.com/…/poverty-deadly-evidence-auster…

Worth a read.. Shocking statistics about the increases in poverty that haven’t even been broadcasted to us! The UK is by no means over the recession we must not turn a blind eye to it and those in need! ‪#‎challenging

This is the most shocking thing I have read this week. Not the article, I’ve already read or read about most of the reports cited in it. No, I was shocked by this Facebook comment, which came from a friend of mine. Where’s he been? He’s clearly not been reading my Facebook page!

But it is unfair to be too critical, because as the article says, these stories are not making media headlines. The reports, stories and figures are there if you know where to look, but they are not the hot topics of conversation.

On Saturday I joined over 100 of others to talk about poverty in Sheffield, and in particular the impact of benefit cuts on people in Sheffield. We heard from Nick Waterfield talking about foodbanks, including telling us about the foodbank in Nottingham which has closed its doors because it has become part of the problem, not part of the solution. We heard from the “Sheffield academics” who have described the devastating impact of welfare cuts on people in Sheffield. And we heard from Jane Perry, the author of “Emergency Use Only”, the report published by the Church of England, Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group and Trussell Trust.

On Saturday, Jane was talking about a different piece of research, which I’ll come to in a moment. But before she presented her report, she had this to say. Policy makers can’t know the impact of policies unless we tell them. Even people in churches won’t know unless we tell the stories of those who have been affected. This is what needs to happen, so that my friends know the stories before they read articles in the Guardian. So let me take some time to tell some of these stories.listenup

I’m going to share some of the stories from “Emergency Use Only” and from the other research Jane was involved in. This project was called “Listen Up!” and enabled church members to take time to interview and listen to members of their own communities struggling with welfare cuts. I’m not going to comment further, just tell some stories, and hope that they speak to you and that you will speak them to others.

Kath lives with her three teenage sons. Her youngest son has several serious medical conditions and requires intensive support. After her partner left 4 years ago, Kath gave up work to become his full-time carer. This left the family finances in precarious financial position:

‘We live very close to the edge… we don’t have many things. My 17-year-old needed a passport to get a part-time job and I had to say no. My youngest, who’s 14, has never been on a school trip, and I can’t afford the art supplies my other son needs for his course.’

The family were just about managing when their Child Tax Credits were halved without notice. Kath had arranged her finances so that she relied on her tax credits to pay for food and other daily necessities, so the effect was catastrophic.

When Kath contacted HMRC, she was told her credits had been cut because she had failed to tell them that her two older sons were staying in education. Kath says she did update them. She was assigned a case worker and given a number to call, ‘and that’s where the problem started’.

‘I called them every day all day and couldn’t get through. And every time I got put through to the answer machine we got charged. It was awful. I’d go back to the helpline and say “I can’t get through”, and they said “Well, that’s the number”. They didn’t help at all. It went on for eight weeks.’

Kath was horrified by how she was treated. ‘When our money was stopped, there was no compassion, there was no way to get support.’

Meanwhile, she was getting into more and more debt: ‘We got behind on all our bills; everything just got swallowed up, and my direct debits were bouncing.’

She became unable to meet the family’s basic needs. ‘It was freezing cold, there was no wood for the fire, I was on the emergency on the meter and I knew the lights were about to go out, and I had no food.’ To attempt to make ends meet, Kath had to rehouse a much-loved family pet, a decision which she described as ‘heart-breaking’. But this was still not enough: ‘I had no money to get my children to school… I was desperate.’

To compound their problems, her youngest son’s conditions mean he needs to eat healthily, which Kath found challenging on a small budget. ‘He can’t eat fast food; he would have ended up in hospital.’

Kath and her family survived with the help of donations from her local Citizens Advice Bureau and food bank. It took eight weeks for the decision to cut her Child Tax Credits to be overturned.

She said of her experience: ‘I thought the system would protect me. I never thought I would be completely ignored. I feel I was let down hugely. My benefits are my safety net – if they’re removed, how are families like ours meant to survive?’ Emergency Use Only

Before her car accident, Abby described herself as being on a “living wage” of around £150 to £200 per week. The sick pay she currently receives through being unable to work because of her injuries has halved that element of income to £85 per week, leaving her much more dependent on tax credits and benefits paid for her children. After bills are paid, she is left with £20 for other things. Abby’s accident compounded difficulties caused by estrangement from her family and the loss of her baby to cot death, leaving her with ‘re-occurring depression’. And yet she retains an impressive sense of personal resilience, saying “I might be little but I’m mighty”. She expressed a certain sense of inevitability about having to be, as she described herself, “like iron”, based on perception of having little choice but to cope alone. When asked who she turned to in a crisis, she responded “to the mirror”.  Listen Up!

A woman seeking money advice had been receiving Income Support on the grounds of ill health and failed to qualify for ESA. Payment of her benefits had stopped towards the end of December 2013, leaving her with no income whatsoever. She suffers with diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and arthritis. When seen at the food bank in early February 2014, having lived without income for over a month, she was visibly struggling to stand, even supported by a walking stick. The client had phoned the DWP in January and said she wanted a mandatory reconsideration of the decision. In late February, the client received a notice that her request had been refused. The next day CPAG assisted her to complete an appeal form which was submitted to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS). HMCTS confirmed to CPAG that it had sent acknowledgement of receipt of the appeal to the DWP eight days after it had been posted. The welfare rights adviser called the DWP the same day (12 days after the appeal had been posted) and explained that HMCTS had received the appeal, and asked for ESA to be reinstated pending its resolution. As the section of the DWP dealing with the issue had not received the acknowledgement at that time it refused to reinstate ESA. Three days later HMCTS finally agreed to send an email to the DWP confirming that the appeal had been received. CPAG also faxed the DWP the copy of the client’s letter from HMCTS confirming an appeal had been lodged. The DWP refused to act on this evidence. In late March, some 26 days after the appeal had been posted, CPAG received the papers for the appeal from the DWP (meaning that they must have received confirmation of the appeal from HMCTS). The client was finally paid ESA in early April (35 days after the appeal was posted to HMCTS).  Emergency Use Only

Upon investigation by the welfare rights adviser, it emerged that a woman had been sanctioned for ‘failure to attend work programme’ three separate times by different decision makers in three different offices:

  • Feb 2014 – decision made by Wellingborough Labour Market decision makers but reversed as client had been attending a job interview when not at the work programme.
  • March 2014 – decision made by the Watford Labour Market decision makers, reversed as the claimant had been ill on that date and had phoned to explain this to the work programme provider.
  • April 2014 – decision made by Cosham Labour Market decision makers, reversed because the claimant had had a meeting about rent arrears with her landlord at the time she was supposed to be attending, and had told the Jobcentre in advance.

There appeared to be confusion within the DWP regarding this case. In particular, sanction periods should not have overlapped as they did. However, from the claimant’s perspective, the multiple decision makers meant any phone calls and correspondence had to be with three different offices. It was also incredibly hard, even for a welfare rights adviser, to obtain accurate information regarding the case. It took in excess of ten hours of welfare rights adviser time to resolve these sanctions and ensure the client was paid, given the difficulties of obtaining information and the need to correspond with so many different parties. The client meanwhile, despite the fact she had obtained hardship payments and still retained her Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit during this period, had had to take her child’s Christmas presents to Cash Converters in order to pay for fuel. On redeeming these when she was finally paid she had to pay more than she had received.  Emergency Use Only

‘There should be more discretion for individuals with the bedroom tax. I’m on the list for a bungalow, but I realise that means someone else has to die for one to become available. But I’ll still have to pay bedroom tax, because sometimes my daughter has to stay the night when my mobility deteriorates.’  Woman in her 50s with disability, Listen Up

Raja lives in a small flat which he rents from a housing association. He worked as a nurse until 2008 when he was hospitalised with mental health problems; at this time, Raja also lost his home. He made a gradual recovery over the next few years and lived in a series of hostels. He was eventually re-housed to his current home and was able to start work again in 2011.

After losing his job again in 2013, Raja applied for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). His claim took eight weeks to be processed. During this time Raja had to use the food bank for the first time, as he did not have enough money to buy food. His benefits were stopped at the beginning of 2014 because he could not access the system to complete the required job-search activities.

“Over Christmas for three days I didn’t have access to universal job match, as I didn’t have access to a computer as everything was still shut, my local library was shut. The day I went to sign on I found I had been sanctioned. It went on for four weeks. It’s not at all reasonable. I’m not just talking about myself, but so many people are sanctioned. I didn’t even have electricity whilst I was sanctioned as I couldn’t afford it, and I ended up at the food bank.”

Raja survived with the help of a crisis payment from Citizens Advice Bureau and food parcels from the food bank. His housing association also supported him in his efforts to find work.

Raja found the Jobcentre to be very unhelpful: he experienced a lack of empathy and support and a lack of information, particularly about whether the JSA sanction would have a knock-on effect on his Housing Benefit. When he tried to question the sanction he was referred to a helpline based in Newcastle, but the advisers were not able to help with his case.

“I don’t think we get enough help from the Jobcentre itself with applying for jobs. My local housing association do help me; they give me a one-to-one and they let me access computers.”

Raja remained positive about the future, and was learning new IT skills at college and applying for low-paid jobs.

“I think I’ve now got a part-time job working as a night receptionist so I’m very happy. Working is good for your health; it’s good to be doing something. I want to get off benefits. Even though it’s minimum wage, I can’t wait to get off them. I was on more money when I was a senior nurse but I think anything is better than dole money.”  Emergency Use Only

Poverty and our collective responsibility

Emergency use onlyI’ve been following with interest the reaction to the new report “Emergency Use Only” from the Church of England, Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group and the Trussell Trust about why people need to go to food banks. I read one blog here on the Church Action on Poverty site, talking about different aspects of poverty and the church’s response to it. The blog ends:

“[This shows] why the Church has such a vital and on-going role to play. Food banks and Night Shelters are run by the Churches because material poverty needs to be addressed.  Authentic faith always has a social impact. But the Church also has unique resources to address the poverty of relationships and identity.”

I find myself torn in my response to this statement. I haven’t quite finished reading “Emergency Use Only”, which details the circumstances of some of those using our many and growing food banks. But the stories in the report reveal the difficult situations some of our neighbours find themselves in and the tremendous amount of need there is. Of course people in the church (and others) will be motivated to help and to try to meet some of this material need. And yes, the church does have unique resources to address the poverty of relationships and identity. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the church should have an on-going and vital role to play meeting material needs, and even possibly relationship and identity needs.

The welfare state and the NHS were born out of the devastation of the second world war. People looked at the plight of their fellow citizens and wanted to make a response to ensure all those in need would be cared for. A collective, country-wide response to ensure there could be no gaps for people to slip into. The desire to help those in need was there, and those who were able provided this help through their national insurance contributions. The NHS and the welfare state became the agencies which act on our behalf to meet the needs of material poverty and ill-health.

This is not a matter of the state taking over our individual responsibility, but a rather a collective, organised response to the needs of society. We must continue to take responsibility by ensuring we participate in the democratic process and hold our governments to account. We all contribute to each other’s welfare through our taxes (direct and indirect) as well as national insurance contributions.

I’ve had conversations with people who feel that meeting material need should remain the role of the church. But at its best, this could only be a piecemeal response to need, dependent on the finances and social inclination of a particular church in a particular place. A nationally organised health service and welfare provision ensures that everyone can access the help they need. This is the agency through which the church and all its members are able to provide for the needs of others by virtue of being citizens. Looked at this way, we all remain collectively responsible for each other.

Churches will continue to respond to unmet need. I cannot criticise this. But I can and will question why that need exists in the first place. After the war, people wanted to make sure that no-one was left behind. It is quite clear now that many people are being left behind. Left behind to struggle with bereavement, ill health, chronic low wages, poor housing, relationship breakdown, redundancy among other things. The agency, which we (as in our predecessors in the 1940s) commissioned to help them, now fails to do the thing it was designed to do.

Is the rise in the numbers of people accessing food banks attributable to changes in the administration of benefits? The “Emergency Use Only” report says it can’t prove this either way. Are people being let down by a system of welfare support that is supposed to help them? Clearly the answer is yes, as the many stories detailed in the report attest to. There are many more untold stories from food banks around the country. How many of these stories do we need to tell before those responsible for administering our welfare state are prepared to act? The safety net which the citizens of the late 1940s created for the benefit of all now has far too many holes in. The holes need to be fixed, because right now, people are crashing straight through onto the rocks below.

Values and a Good Society

People do like to talk about “returning to British values” or to “Christian values”! But they are less clear precisely what those values actually are. And if we could agree on the values we think are Christian, would those values be the ones we would like to see in a good society? I’d like to think that a society based on Christian values would be a good one!

The first problem with defining “British values” lies in deciding whether we’re looking for values which are exclusively British, or for values shared by others which we subscribe to and want to share as well. I think we have to go for the second definition – surely any values which a nation believes in would be embraced by other nations too. We may have some idiosyncrasies, but on the whole, things that make Britain a good place to live make other places good too.

You can apply the same thought process to defining “Christian values” – values which are exclusively Christian, or working out which human values are part of the Christian faith and which are not. Again, I’d go with the second option as I’d be surprised to find any values which we might consider Christian which are not shared by other religions.

That was the easy part – much harder to decide what those values actually are. And different Christians will have many different opinions.

good society

One place to start is to ask what are the values we would like to see in a good society and then to ask if these are Christian values. What makes a good society? What does a society which works for the benefit of all look like? This is a question which Church Action on Poverty has been asking in conversations round the country.

My dissertation was based on research about values. You can read more about this research on the Common Cause website. It suggests that values based on intrinsic motivations are generally associated with behaviour that promotes the common good rather than just individual gain. This is in contrast to values which rely on extrinsic rewards making people less likely to act for the common good.

This set me wondering – are the values which promote the common good the same as Christian values? And what are these values?

The research sorts the values into groups, and two groups in particular are associated with behaviour which benefits others (pro-social behaviour such as buying fair trade products, action to mitigate climate change, concern about inequality). One group, labelled Benevolence, is particularly linked to behaviour which helps family and friends. This includes values of mature love, forgiving, meaning in life, true friendship, a spiritual life, helpful, honest, responsible and loyal. I think it is uncontroversial to say that these are Christian values.

But the group of values most strongly associated with pro-social behaviour is the one labelled Universalism. This includes social justice, equality, a world at peace, broadminded, unity with nature, a world of beauty, wisdom, inner harmony, and protecting the environment. And the opposite group (Power), most strongly associated with stopping people engage in pro-social behaviour, includes social recognition, preserving my public image, wealth, social power, and authority.

This is where I am challenged. The values in the Universalism group do not seem to be obviously Christian. Do I reject them as nice but not central to the Christian faith, even though promoting them is likely to bring about the biggest changes for the benefit of all? Or is my view of Christian values too small?

It was the Beatitudes which convinced me. A radical manifesto to challenge the structural injustice in society. This short passage turns the Power values on their head, and instead of placing importance on wealth, status and power, Jesus says that the poor, the meek and the persecuted are blessed. Also blessed are those who stand with the poor in spirit, who hunger for righteousness and justice, who seek to bring peace and whose motivation is pure – values of equality, social justice, a world at peace and inner harmony.

I don’t think the Beatitudes are an exhaustive account of Christian values, but they are a representative one. Within them we find that the values within Universalism are Christian values. There are a few gaps, most notably those concerned with the environment, which may be why it has taken the church so long to wake up to its environmental responsibility. But most stark is the comprehensive rejection in the Beatitudes of Power values. It is in the not seeking after power, wealth and status that Christianity finds itself most at odds with the world we live in.

A good society cares for everyone and works for the interest of the common good. It considers its impact on all, not just those in its immediate neighbourhood. I think a society displaying the intrinsic values identified by Common Cause is most likely to become a good society, values which we can also identify as Christian values. We can find these values in a gospel which tells us to love our neighbour, to speak out for justice and righteousness, and to reject the self-serving interests of status and power.

This is a slightly longer version of my blog written for Church Action on Poverty, which you can find here.

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.

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.

Lent and Hunger

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My daughter and I are giving up cakes for Lent – just as soon as we’ve eaten the cakes still in the house! Yes, I know that’s really what pancake day is for, but she was at a cupcake party at the weekend and still has the lovely specimen above to eat! We should be all set by the end of the week for a cake-free Lent!

We’ve made other pledges in the family for this period of abstinence. My son announced on the way home from school yesterday that he is giving up not sharing! Too many negatives there – in other words he’s going to share more between now and Easter, especially games consoles with his sister! And as a family we’ve pledged to join the End Hunger Fast campaign. We’ll be joining in the national day of fasting on 4th April and we’ll be taking the 3-day foodbank challenge at some point during Lent too.

The Christian season of Lent comes from the example of Jesus, who spent 40 days in the wilderness, going without food and focussing on God the Father to prepare for the start of his public ministry. Lent is a time for self-examination before God allowing short-comings to be revealed and then restored. The self-denial of fasting is about shifting our focus from ourselves onto God, and the discipline required means we are thrown onto His strength instead of our own. Lent is about renewing our commitment to God, and this year, some friends have given up Facebook rather than food in order to spend the time in prayer instead.

I think it’s time we had a season of self-examination in the UK. The rising numbers of people using food banks shows that many people don’t have the luxury of choosing to go hungry as a spiritual discipline – it is a part of their every day life. So this year, our fasting is in solidarity with those going hungry in Britain. And we’re joining in with the campaign to draw attention to the issue.

The End Hunger Fast campaign is calling for the Government to examine what is happening and act to bring about change in three areas; welfare, wages and food prices. Over half of those who go to a food bank are referred because of benefit delays, changes and sanctions. Regardless of the political arguments about welfare reform, government debt and affordability, social security should provide a secure safety net to ensure people do not go hungry.  The majority of households in poverty actually have one or more adults in work, but people are still at risk from hunger. Work should pay, and the minimum wage ought to make sure it does. The campaign also calls for support for the Living Wage, which I have discussed before. Meanwhile, food prices continue to rise, even ahead of inflation and way above wages. And the poorest often end up paying more for their food, or having to buy cheap but unhealthy processed food because of a lack of access to supermarkets and fresh food outlets. The campaign calls for a full review of British food markets to find ways to make them healthy, affordable and sustainable.

So, what are you giving up for Lent? Would you choose to go hungry to stand in solidarity with those who have no choice, even here in the UK? 20 charities, including Church Action on Poverty, and a number of public figures have signed up. There are lots of ways to join in and pledge your support, and there will be media moments during the campaign too. It started this morning outside the Houses of Parliament – you can see pictures on Facebook and follow the campaign there.

Who benefits from benefits?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solving food poverty in Liverpool

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

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

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

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

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