Tag Archives: Greenbelt

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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The foreigner, the fatherless and the widow

Communion service at Greenbelt 2015
Communion service at Greenbelt 2015

Some 3,000 year old words have been bugging me for a while. I was reminded of them during the Communion service at Greenbelt, so I’ll remind you of them now.

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.  Deuteronomy 24:19-22

One of the themes running through Greenbelt this year was our relationship to the environment and our response to climate change. The relationship to the earth described in these words seems striking compared to our modern approach. The land was not exploited for every last drop of goodness it could produce. Those who farmed the land did not have the right to extract everything they could possibly get from their fields, or trees or vines. One step away from the mind-set that “it’s mine so I shall have it”, the earth can be recognised as a resource which we share, and its fruit as a gift freely given, not a right of ownership.

It seems to me that moving away from our exploitative, extractive relationship with the earth, to a more equal, interdependent relationship would be a much more helpful approach as we consider the problem of rising global temperatures causing devastating climate change. The earth holds many valuable resources. But just because they are there, doesn’t mean we have to take them, or even that we have the right to take them. We are not masters of the earth, but dependent on it. Its resources must be shared for the benefit of all, not exploited for the gains of the few.

But if I thought that was all these words had to say to me, I was wrong! Immediately after Greenbelt, the refugee crisis, which had already been going on for months, finally broke through into people’s consciousness. The need and the numbers were finally recognised, and we started to ask what on earth we were going to do.

Blackberry harvest
Blackberry harvest

Again, 3,000 year old words seemed to have something striking to say now. The harvest was not to be gathered in and clung to tightly so that no-one else could get it. This idea is much easier to grasp when the harvest is considered a gift freely given and not a right which is earned. There is plenty, we do not need to keep it all to ourselves. There is enough to share with those in need, with the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, those who cannot provide for themselves, rather like refugees, in fact.

And now it is the time of Harvest Festivals in churches up and down the country, which has reminded me of another old harvest story. This story also involves refugees, though you could call them economic migrants. (Does leaving a place because you don’t have enough money to buy food to eat make you a migrant seeking a better life or a refugee fleeing from starvation?) Naomi was a refugee in Moab because of a famine in Israel. She has made a life in Moab, getting married and having a family. But when her husband and sons die, she hears that the famine in Israel is over. So she decides to return to Israel, bringing Ruth, one of her daughters-in-law from Moab, with her. They have no means of financial support, so foreigner and economic migrant Ruth takes advantage of the law in Deuteronomy and gleans in the fields belonging to Boaz during the barley harvest.

How would we respond to this situation today? Naomi might be allowed to return home, but Ruth could not come to this country, with her lack of skills or earning potential. Even if they were refugees fleeing starvation, would we welcome Ruth to the UK? And if she came here, would she survive? Do we set aside enough of our plenty so that those with nothing can provide for themselves, or do we begrudge every benefit payment that is scrounged from the state?

I’m struck by the mirror this story holds up to the UK at the moment, and the attitudes I see reflected back. What do we really think of those in need travelling across Europe, encamped in Calais, drowning in the Mediterranean? Who will we welcome into the UK? And when they come, will we really care for them, treat them as humans, value and respect them? Do we truly believe that immigrants contribute to our society or not? Because there is one final twist in this tale. Ruth goes on to marry Boaz and have a family of her own. She becomes great-grandmother to David, the great King of Israel, and ancestor of Jesus, the son of God.

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.

Greenbelt 2013

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Just back from the Greenbelt Festival – we’ve had a great weekend. Family highlights include Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the independence to be out and about around the site, Clare Balding, Simon Mayo and the Stories from People in the youth venue.

I thought mainstage was great this year, and enjoyed catching up with old friends.  I signed a few petitions: Christian Aid’s challenge to end tax dodging, Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s call for the freedom to choose your own religion, and the Children’s Society’s demand for free school meals for all those in poverty in the UK.

I also enjoyed engaging with talks by Jim Wallis, calling for people of faith to build movements to “change the wind” in order to create the space for politicians to move and act for the common good.  I’ve bought two books to be able to read more! It was also interesting to hear from Steve Chalke talking about how the church should get involved in building communities. He was advocating church involvement in education, health care and all sorts of other community and social activity, all exciting stuff. However, I was less excited by his analysis that we are entering a post-welfare society, and disturbed by the absence in his talk of any sense that the church should be involved in protesting or campaigning about this. As well as a practical role, the church has a prophetic role. We cannot sit by while community is contracted out to capitalism (as I said at the time!), but we need to ensure that we continue to live in a society where the most vulnerable are cared for, and our health and education provision is not subject to the whims of an array of providers or any kind of postcode lottery.

This feeling seemed to be echoed by several other listeners who came up and spoke to me afterwards. Greenbelt has, for as long as I can remember, been a voice for the voiceless. Whether we’re prophets or protesters, injustice cannot go unchallenged. Yes, absolutely, the church should help those in need, build community, feed the hungry, clothe the naked.  But more than this, the church should challenge the structures that cause the injustice in the first place, or run the risk of collusion with the same.