Tag Archives: inequality

Putting my head above the parapet

sheffield-cathedral-external-viewI don’t usually get into church politics on here. I prefer to stick to the real thing. While we in the church are arguing with each other, we are not building the kingdom. We are not being salt and light, or good news, or transforming lives, communities or the world we live in.

But here in Sheffield there is a church political storm going on all around me, and I (inspired by a friend at Synod last week) don’t think I can be silent any longer.

I am deeply conflicted by the appointment of Philip North to be Bishop of Sheffield. I haven’t yet met him, but from his acceptance speech, he seems to be a lovely man, full of grace and with a passion for justice. He brings a vision for the poor and the left behind on ‘outer estates’ and those who have worked with him say nothing but good things. His gifts and his vision will be a great fit for this Diocese, which includes not just Sheffield, but also Rotherham, Doncaster and the surrounding countryside out to Goole.

But all this comes attached to a man whose theological conviction means he cannot ordain women as priests or bishops. I cannot pretend to understand this position. The way I see it, we were all created in the image of God – there is something of the divine creator in every human. And when we were lifted out of the mess humans created for themselves by Jesus’s sacrifice once and for all, we were all redeemed and made one in Christ. For there is no longer any male or female.

It is taking the world and the church a long time to catch up with this Biblical principle, but we are slowly moving towards justice and equality. It seems to me (and this is just my interpretation) that justice and equality is at the heart of Bishop Philip’s ministry and his concern that we need to listen to the voices of the poor. And now I really come into conflict, because gender inequality lies at the heart of social and economic inequality. Women are paid, on average, 19.2% less than men. Women make up a higher proportion than men of those living in poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that Three-quarters of single parent households live below the minimum income standard, 90% of which are headed up by women. And recent changes to the benefits and tax system, in the name of austerity, have been unfairly shouldered by women, who have taken 85% of the hit.

A vision for equality cannot be separated from a vision for men and women’s equality. I’m very interested to know how Bishop Philip brings these two things together. Because however it is dressed up in theological conviction, saying that women can’t take on certain roles in the church is not equality.

So I’m waiting. Waiting for Bishop Philip to bring his gifts, wondering how it will play out for us here in Sheffield Diocese. I’m not here asking Bishop Philip to withdraw because the church has decided this is how it’s going to be. Not just the specific selection process that chose Bishop Philip, which has its flaws, but we have to trust God was there in that process. But the wider decision made by the whole church in 2014 when provision for making women bishops was agreed.

The situation is not as people outside the church see it. The Sheffield Telegraph ran a double page spread asking if women should be ordained priests or bishops. It is a very great shame if people think we are still debating this question. We’re not. The Church of England has decided that women should be ordained as priests and bishops. This is no longer in question. It reflects badly on the church that people think it is.

The conflict we find ourselves in now is due to the choices made in July 2014 about how to move forward with respect to those who don’t agree with the decision that women should be priests and bishops. There are five guiding principles, but broadly I will split them into two.

Firstly, anyone who ministers in the Church of England has to accept this decision and uphold and respect everyone with the office of priest or bishop regardless of gender. Bishop Philip has made it pretty clear that he does this and will continue to do so.

But secondly, if your theological conviction means you are working with this even though you don’t agree, you can still be part of the Anglican family. This is not least in part because large sections of the Anglican communion haven’t reached the decision we have made in England, but we still want to remain in communion with them. If we’re going to extend this courtesy to ministers in the church round the world, then we’re surely going to extend it to ministers in the church in England. This isn’t just about ‘tolerating’ people with different views, but ensuring that everyone’s needs are met and that we can all flourish. And all orders of ministry are open to all equally.

These are the decisions that we made as a church at General Synod in July 2014. Perhaps we didn’t think through the consequences then (the current furore suggests we didn’t) but the inevitable outworking of them is that men can and will be appointed as bishops who hold a theological view that doesn’t include women priests or bishops. They will have to work with and uphold the ministry of the women that they work with, respect their office and support their vocation. And those with a different point of view will have to extend the same in return.

So, if we don’t like it, we will have to go back to that decision which paved the way for women to become bishops in the first place. If we undid that decision (I don’t even know if it’s possible as I know nothing about church law) then would the whole provision for women to become bishops be unravelled? Or if we make a new decision and decide that other theological points of view cannot be held within the Church of England, are we prepared to leave behind those in our midst and those around the world who will not follow?

Bishop Philip’s appointment is part of our decision to live together. We like to talk about disagreeing well, and being a model for how to do so for others, so let’s try that for a change. If we don’t like the decision we’ve made to live together, then we need to move the debate way beyond women’s ministry to the unity of the whole Anglican community and the worldwide church. If you think that, as an issue of justice, we need to go there, then you need to say so.

The Queen’s Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I can’t sanction sanctions

Emergency use onlyWhat happens to people who get their benefits stopped? Have you ever actually sat down and thought about what really happens? Or are the consequences unfortunate but unavoidable, so you don’t think about them? After all, sanctions are a justifiable way of making sure people aren’t defrauding the system, right?

Well, no. Benefit fraud is a different thing altogether and involves court cases, paying the money back and going to prison. Just over a year ago I was giving debt advice to a couple with young children who were sentenced to prison the week before Christmas.

Let’s look at what I’m really talking about. What bothers me is the growing gap in the numbers between people in work and people claiming unemployment benefit – known these days as job seekers allowance (JSA).

Not everyone who doesn’t work claims JSA. Some people are too unwell to work and they (should) receive a different allowance. Other people live in households which have other income and aren’t entitled to JSA. In theory, in an ideal world, this should cover everyone.

Recently, the number of people in work has been rising. We can have a debate about the quality of these jobs, and employment versus self-employment, but that’s for another day. However, government figures show the number of people receiving JSA has been falling faster than the number of people in work has been rising. It’s perfectly clear that they haven’t all started claiming the allowance for those too unwell for work as the furore over changes to this benefit shows. And neither you nor I believe they’ve all moved into households with other income.

No, people are no longer counted as claiming JSA because they have had their allowance stopped. And here is the key phrase I read on a discussion thread, and which continues to buzz round my head – “people are no longer counted”. These people don’t count any more – they’re off the JSA figures – who cares if they’re actually working or not.

So – what actually happens when your income disappears. It usually happens without notice. Most people will tell you they went to collect their money as usual to find it was not there, with no other warning. A sanction can last four weeks or eight weeks, but can be as long as 26 weeks or 104 weeks. Yes, that’s right – 104 weeks – that’s two years, a nice piece of government obfuscation there.

Now, let’s remember this is happening to people, not just numbers. What do you do when suddenly you have not money? You can’t put any more money on your gas or electricity meter – many people without a wage coming in have to use pre-pay meters. Let’s hope the weather is warm. You won’t be able to switch on the oven, but then again, chances are you don’t have any money to buy food. And if it goes on too long, you might not even have a cooker if you’d “bought” it from somewhere like Brighthouse and are paying back in instalments because you could never get that sort of money together up front. Keep the doors and windows locked so the bailiffs can’t get in.

You can’t top up your phone, so you can’t call anyone to see what’s gone wrong or how to put it right, and you don’t have the bus fare to go into town to sort it out. Your rent should still be paid by housing benefit, but this is often incorrectly stopped as well*. Then there’s water rates, TV licence, bedroom tax and council tax, all unpaid and stacking up arrears, penalties and further potential visits from bailiffs.

So what can you do? You could borrow from family and friends, if they’ve got anything they can lend you. But this can only be a temporary fix and will have to be paid back for the sake of family harmony. Likewise, you could go to a foodbank, but again, this is only a short-term solution if your sanction is a long one, and you’ll have to say no to the fresh veg they sometimes offer because you’ve nothing spare to put on the meter for the hob. You could try a payday lender (if you aren’t already struggling with previous loans). You’ll probably get one, but it’s hardly a good solution because even when/if your money is restored, there’s nothing spare to make the repayments anyway. Mind you, it’s an option more and more of us are turning too and personal credit in the UK continues to rocket. You could try a doorstep lender like Provident – at least they accept repayments in smaller amounts, but these seem to go on forever. But better than an illegal lender, a though which has crossed your mind. A Credit Union loan would be a better option, but (as yet) these aren’t available soon enough – you’ll need to be a saver for several weeks first in most cases.

If only there were hardship payments available to tied you over until the end of the sanction period – as least to put money on the meter and food on the table. What? You mean there are such payments? Why did no-one tell me about them?** Meanwhile, we’re all hungry and the last resort might be shoplifting, just so there’s something to feed the kids when they get home from school tonight.

 

After I wrote this blog but before I posted it, I read this article, which echoes some of my themes above and shows that sanctions don’t help people back into work anyway. Who’d’ve thought?

* see the Emergency Use Only report (pictured), p116

** see the Emergency Use Only report, p42 and p111

Food Banks and Society

Food banks are never far away from the news, not least because it’s hard to believe that so many people are reliant on their provisions in one of the richest countries in the world. Despite the Government failing to respond to this growing scandal, Frank Field and the Church of England launched their own inquiry, and this week the resulting report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group, Feeding Britain, was launched.

Interestingly, the authors of the report say that this: “our first and most important point is that we want to call all people again to consider how we want to live together as members of this society and how we can encourage one another”. In the light of the report, and in my experience working as a debt advisor and with a food bank, I’d like to offer my considerations.

I think we need to live together in a society which values and respects people in work. I do not think this is the case in a country where people are working, sometimes several jobs, and are still not earning enough to pay the bills. I’d like to see a society where people are not exploited for their labour, where zero-hours contracts are a happy adjunct to busy lives for a few and not a systematic way of keeping costs down while people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. I’d like to see a minimum wage which rises as the cost of living goes up. I’d like to see national and local government encouraging the implementation of a Living Wage for their own staff, contracted staff and through their procurement and tendering procedures, as well as ways to encourage other businesses and organisations to pay a Living Wage. I’d like to see protection of the rights of workers and strengthening of Unions, rather than a steady erosion of terms and conditions in the name of “flexible working”. I’d like to see a society which values people above profit, where money and growth is the means to an end and not an end in itself.

I think we need to live together in a society which values and respects people who are not in work. I do not thinks this is the case in a country which has become so focused on the very few who play the system that it has forgotten to take care of everyone else. I’d like to see a social security system which is a genuine safety net for those who are struggling and going through a tough period in their lives. I don’t want to live in a society where a man with learning disabilities who is trying hard to live independently after he lost his Mum and his job in a Remploy factory has his income taken away for four weeks because he struggles to read the letters sent to him from the Job Centre, and where he finds himself in debt because no-one took the time to explain to him that benefit changes mean he has become liable for part of his council tax bill which has previously been fully covered. I don’t want to be part of a society which counts and celebrates the number of people in work, and counts the number of people on benefits, but where those people who are not in work but have been cut adrift from the benefit system become people who no longer count. I want to live together in a country where we understand that our contribution to the state through tax and national insurance funds the way we share our responsibility for the well-being of all. I don’t want to be part of a country which is driven by an ideology which believes state spending should be as small as possible, and in the pursuit of this goal fails to protect the vulnerable and leaves all of us in fear of crashing through the gaping hole in the social security safety net if anything should happen.

I think we need to live together in a society which recognises the responsibility of Government to invest in the welfare of its citizens. I don’t believe we need to pursue austerity at all costs. I don’t believe that continuing to cut, not just benefits, but the services we rely on to help us navigate through life and Government bureaucracy, is the way to build up our common life. I believe that people want to share in our collective responsibility towards one another and would be happy to contribute. I think that there are people at the wealthier end of the spectrum who could shoulder a bigger portion of this responsibility. If we really need to tackle the deficit (though if Government borrowing is so cheap at the moment, perhaps it is not the imperative we are told it is) then increasing income is just as valid an alternative to reducing costs. Serious effort should be applied to closing tax loopholes and increasing transparency so we can collect the billions in taxes currently being avoided by multinationals operating in this country. We could introduce a “Robin Hood Tax” like our fellow citizens in Europe are doing, so that we benefit more as a country from the enormous financial markets in the City of London and so that there is at least a small application of the brakes on damaging speculative short term trading.

The Feeding Britain report makes other suggestions about benefits, tax credits, access to credit, energy and water bills, access to the internet and mobile phones. All these things are key to easing the financial squeeze faced by poor households. It also suggests something which it calls Food Bank plus. The theory is once some of the measures above are put in place, households with a short term crisis will not need to use a food bank, freeing the service up to offer more support to those with longer-term needs. The report identifies that the issue of food, being such a basic physical and social need, means that people have come for help who are otherwise “hard to reach”. With a more joined-up, co-ordinated approach, Food Bank plus would offer a portal to provide better support for these people, including debt advice, benefits advice, help for mental health issues, access to credit such as via credit unions, back to work programmes, help and advice around cooking and nutrition.

I can see what they are saying. I recognise that people came to the food bank I worked for who were very suspicious of anyone from the council or social services or the job centre, but were reassured by the staff and volunteers who made them a cup of tea, listened to their problems and gave them a bag of food. But… food banks cannot become an institutionalised part of our welfare system. We must be a country where the state takes responsibility for its citizens. If people are going hungry, the system is broken and needs to be fixed. If the appropriate funding was invested in job centres and advice staff, then people would have access to the advice they need and the benefit system would be navigated successfully. If mental health services were accorded the value and funding of their physical health counterpart, then people would have confidence in the services that were offered. Likewise for social services.

We are back to discussing the kind of society we want to live in, how we want to live together. The report speaks of a lack of social glue holding society together. I don’t think it is possible to say this is all down to government cuts. However, I do believe that the way the Government is behaving is symptomatic of the reason for the lack of social glue. Business, politics, economics – it is all driven by the pursuit of growth. It is all about the bottom line. We are all here to be efficient economic units – efficient in production and insatiable in our consumption. The value of people and the relationships between friends and neighbours are sacrificed on the altar of growth. But I want to be part of a society which values people above profit. Where government policy is decided on in the light of its impact on people and communities. Our trust in one another is eroded when inequality rises, when our status is under threat, our jobs are insecure and the social contract between a government and its people is broken. We could hope that civil society will do the job of government, will pick up the pieces and look after those in need. But I thought we’d moved on from that. I thought we’d decided as a society that we would like our collective responsibility to one other to be fulfilled through the instrument of the state providing education, health and welfare equitably and justly for all of us throughout the country, regardless of status or background. Otherwise we’ll end up like the Post Office, complaining now that it has been privatised, that it is not profitable to run services in remote areas for the same price as everywhere else. We surely knew that before it was sold, that’s why it was nationally owned. As a metaphor for the current regime, the Post Office debacle tells us pretty much what we need to know.

If you’d like to read more, some great work exploring the real lives of food bank users can be found in the Listen Up report and in the Emergency Use Only report.

Other interesting comments on the Feeding Britain reports can be found below

Joint Public Issues: Feeding Britain

The Safety Net: in urgent need of repair

A Way Forward on Food Banks

As Children Starve, Where’s the State?

And if you want to read some books about growth, equality and the creeping reach of market capitalism I can recommend these:

The Spirit Level by Richard Wilson and Kate Pickett

How Much is Enough by Robert and Edward Skidelsky

What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel

More thoughts on It’s not Fair

I blogged about inequality for Blog Action Day, wondering if people really thought inequality wasn’t fair, or whether people thought the poor deserve their predicament. Probably a bit of both.

This means we have got to the situation where it is possible to see inequality and think that it is fair. This bothers me. I think we need a new metaphor, so here is my offering.

P1000777_2

Imagine a family, living in a nice house. Dad has a well-paid job and earns lots of money. He pays the mortgage and the bills and has plenty left over for gadgets and games, expensive clothes, costly sports club membership and plenty meals out with work colleagues.

Mum has a small part-time job and looks after the house. Her wages have to cover food, school uniform and expenses, and her own personal spending.

Two children earn nothing and get nothing. They are fed and clean, but their rooms are bare. They’re not allowed to play on Dad’s gadgets and have none of their own. No treats, no school trips, no clothes other than for school, a bed and that’s it.

Dad works hard and deserves to keep his hard-earned cash – the kids aren’t contributing, why should they benefit from his multi-channel TV and numerous games consoles. Mum has a bit left over from basic shopping and spends it on a few nice things for herself. She deserves her hard earned cash too, little as it is.

Unfortunately there’s been a bit of disruption to Dad’s comfortable existence. There’s a leak in the roof, the boiler only works intermittently, and the washing machine has died. Dad doesn’t see why his hard earned money should pay for things which everyone will benefit from. Mum’s wages don’t stretch that far, however fed up of the launderette she might be.

This ridiculous scenario is plainly unfair. Even though I haven’t suggested the children are mistreated, we don’t expect families to behave like this. In a family, we are in a relationship with each other. Children are not valued as economic units, but in their own right as humans and family members. Parents have responsibilities for their children and everyone has rights and responsibilities towards one another. We expect families to care and share, and not to behave selfishly.

It isn’t a big leap to apply this metaphor to our country or even to the world. Clearly, it’s a metaphor and not a policy statement. But if we thought about ourselves as part of a big family, some of our behaviour would look very differently. Ideas about how much money people deserve and how it should be distributed would change, ideas about what it means to contribute, what makes people valuable [basically, just being people]. Thinking about others as part of our family makes us responsible in some way for their wellbeing, makes us interested in their wellbeing. And failure to invest in shared infrastructure or for the common good is revealed as selfish and ultimately self-defeating.

I’m sure there are many more ways we can apply this metaphor to society – I’m just wondering what happens to children who have nothing to do all day! And ways in which the metaphor falls short or doesn’t work. But we need to tell a different story about our fellow citizens as we inhabit this world together, a story that encourages to value each other, care for each other and work together for all our wellbeing.

It’s not fair!

blogactionday I’m posting for Blog Action Day today, when bloggers all over the world are writing about inequality. Inequality is a theme I often return to, but despite thinking about it for weeks, I’ve been wondering where to start. So, instead of having a beautifully crafted post, lovingly edited over several days, I’m actually bouncing off the things I read on Facebook yesterday. To be fair, that’s how I write most of my stuff!

I started with an infographic from http://realbritainindex.org/ . Since 2006, the consumer price index shows prices have risen by 26%. But when this is broken down to reflect what people actually spend their money on at various income levels, prices for the poorest 10% of households have risen by 32% because food and energy prices have risen by 40% and 73% respectively. We’ve all felt the impact of rising prices, but the impact has been greater if you are poor.

Then I came across an article about how Brighthouse is doing so well that it was able to open a new shop every fortnight last year. This is a shop which enables people who can’t get credit elsewhere, often due to very low incomes, can buy large and/or expensive household goods at small weekly payments. “Where a washing machine that costs £399 from Currys ends up costing almost four times that amount from BrightHouse: £1,560.” This is known as the poverty premium – you have less to start with, and then your essentials end up costing more because you can’t get the discounts that people who can pay up front or by direct debit can get. Energy bills and a TV licence are other classic examples. Or try this headline from the Guardian – “Food, clothes, transport, beds, ovens: the aid schools are giving UK pupils”.

I’ve also just been invited to an event in Sheffield which will revisit the report produced by the Sheffield Fairness Commission. This report used the 83 bus route to illustrate inequality in Sheffield. “The bus starts at Millhouses, in Ecclesall ward where female life expectancy is 86.3 years. By the time the bus has travelled down Ecclesall Road and into the city centre, female life expectancy has dropped to 81.6 years, and by the time it makes its way into Burngreave ward just 40 minutes from the start of the journey female life expectancy is only 76.9 years. This means that a baby girl born and who lives her life in one part of the city can expect to live, on average, almost 10 years longer than a similar baby girl born and living her life about four miles away, by virtue of nothing more than the socio-economic circumstances and area she was born in to.”

How did we get to this place? To a place where goods and services actually cost more if you are poor. To a place where the burden of our economic recovery is falling most heavily on the people with the least resources to cope. To a place, not only where families are living in homes without a bed or food, but also to a place where schools are stepping in to fill this gap because society’s safety net has too many holes in it. To a place where I can get on a bus at the bottom of my road, and within 40 minutes be somewhere where the women I meet can expect to die 10 years earlier than me. But more than this, why are we letting it happen?

I’m not asking about which economic policies have led to rising child poverty instead of falling child poverty, though these questions need to be asked. I’m asking every one of us in this country: why are we not all shouting “It’s not fair!” Because it’s not fair. Where is the mass movement to protest against the inequalities which are increasing in Britain? Where is the anger, where is the rage?

I’m left to draw the conclusion that people think it is fair. That we have swallowed the tale that families living off benefits at the expense of those who are working is what is really unfair. That it is fair to say that people get what they deserve because they make bad choices. We have been deceived into believing that this is the way things have to be while our economy recovers while we turn our eyes away from the individual misery and suffering and sheer bloody unfairness of it all.

There’s an old verse to “All Things Bright and Beautiful” that we don’t sing in church anymore “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, each to his own estate.” We don’t sing it any more because we don’t believe inequality is God-given or in any way inherent or inevitable. It’s not fair, and I’m going to keep saying it until we can find a better way. So I’m glad to add my voice to others calling out the unfairness as part of Blog Action Day.

Solving food poverty in Liverpool

FP1

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.

As much as we complain about other people, there is nothing worse for mental health than a social desert. The more connected we are to family and community, the less likely we are to experience heart attacks, strokes, cancer and depression. Connected people sleep better at night. They live longer. They consistently report being happier.

Funny how you notice more examples of the same thing once your attention has been drawn to it. After Kate Pickett’s lecture talked about how people with more friends get fewer colds, I came across the above quote in an article in the Guardian about making people’s wellbeing the key element in city design.

Close the Gap

Image

After my last post about Kate Pickett’s lecture on the Spirit Level, Liam Purcell from Church Action on Poverty told me that their current campaign to Close the Gap was inspired by this research. I’ve been following and supporting this campaign, so I thought I would write a piece all about it.

The Spirit Level investigates how the relationship between a country’s economic growth and the health and wellbeing of its citizens breaks down once a country reaches a certain level of income. The UK has reached this level – until the recession the UK was getting richer but not healthier or happier. Other things were making a difference, and the Spirit Level research demonstrates that differences in income inequality between countries can account for differences in health and wellbeing. Not only this, but reducing income inequality brings benefits not only for the poorest people in a society, but for every sector of the population.

Church Action on Poverty is campaigning to Close the Gap between rich and poor. This would not only transform the lives of those on the lowest incomes, people who Church Action on Poverty works with on a regular basis, but would also make our whole society fairer, happier, healthier and safer. The campaign focuses on four areas: fair taxes, fair pay, fair prices and fair say.

Fair Taxes

Anyone who knows me IRL knows I’ve been campaigning with Church Action on Poverty and Christian Aid on tax since the tax bus came to town! We’ve all been pretty annoyed that Starbucks, Google and Amazon, to name but a few, seem to be able to operate and make profits in this country without paying their fair contribution to the infrastructure which makes their operations possible. Christian Aid also offers a perspective from poorer countries. If we need company taxes to help our economy, how much more important are they in countries with smaller incomes and bigger needs? Tax was a key part of the recent IF campaign, calling for the closure of tax havens loopholes, disclosure of information between tax jurisdictions, and a public register of who really owns companies (beneficial ownership) so money can’t be hidden and citizens can hold businesses to account. We have really put tax on the table, and just in the last few days, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would publish a register of beneficial ownership and that this register would be public and not just for the tax office. Now Europe and the US needs to follow suit.

More needs to be done to close loopholes and tax havens, and Church Action on Poverty is asking for a re-think on tax. It is part of belonging together to contribute to the welfare of all. This is true for businesses and individuals, and we need to build a fair and transparent taxation system that reflects this attitude. If you want to see more about how the UK is still hiding money and how companies in the City of London are not paying their fair share, come and see the film The UK Gold, being screened in Liverpool on 21st November 2013.

Fair Pay

Did you know that this week is Living Wage week? Do you even know what a Living Wage is? It is calculated independently of governments in this country by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (yes, originally the chocolate guy) and is the hourly rate someone working full-time would need to be paid in order to reach what the public considers to be an acceptable standard of living. At £7.65 an hour (£8.80 in London) it is considerably more than the minimum wage of £6.31 (no London rate).

Those who criticise the Living Wage suggest that it would be too expensive to implement and would put people out of business. The first thing response is to remind people that the Living Wage is voluntary and functions as a standard to aspire to. But in case you think that is a cop out, from the reading I’ve done, those organisations which have implemented it have found that improvements in productivity and reductions in sick pay have more than outweighed the cost. I guess it depends how low your starting point is, but the same argument was raised when the minimum wage was introduced, and there was no corresponding increase in businesses going to the wall.

In fact, introducing a Living Wage looks like it would actually save the government money. A new report from think tanks IPPR and the Resolution Foundation suggests that paying everyone at least the living wage would save the government £2.2 billion a year because of a reduction of in-work benefits and an increase in tax and NI contributions, even taking into account the fact that it would be spending more on paying public sector workers. This is something that has vexed me for a while. The Government is effectively subsidising industries which pay low wages, which includes in particular retail and care. There are plenty businesses in these sectors making handsome profits. By topping up low pay, the Government makes low pay a sustainable option and allows it to continue, while supermarkets (for example) continue to rake it in. The solution is not to cut in-work benefits but improve pay, as is beautifully described in this article by Polly Toynbee. She also says “For the long term, power needs to flow back towards the utterly powerless employee. A German-style seat on the board, as well as on the remuneration committee, helps contain top greed…Companies should be obliged to publish their pay ratios, from top to bottom.”

This is the second strand of Church Action on Poverty’s fair pay demand. We need to question whether huge salaries paid to anyone are justified or acceptable. It is not just a question of whether someone is worth it, but rather is it fair or just that in our society there is such discrepancy in pay. There needs to be a shift in attitudes so that pay ratios between the highest and lowest paid workers of 100:1 or even 200:1 are no longer acceptable.

Fair prices

Working with people on low incomes as a debt adviser has really opened my eyes to just how expensive it is to be poor. My dual fuel, pay by direct debit, paperless billing discounts are not available to someone who has to use a pre-pay gas or electricity meter because they are having difficulty meeting their bills. The weekly shop is also much more expensive if you have no transport to the big out-of-town supermarket and have to rely on local shops. Even the buy two get one free offers are out of reach on a low income, never mind carrying all that extra stuff home on the bus!

Another big issue is the cost of credit, significantly more if you are on a low income, and harder to obtain. This is why door-step lenders, payday loan companies and hire-purchase businesses are thriving, because if there’s nowhere else to borrow money and your washing machine has packed in, what else are you going to do? The cost of borrowing like this is astronomical, there is no limit on the fees and charges added on by lenders, and very little checking up on whether a borrower has the ability to repay. If you get behind with your repayments, or “roll-over” your loan for another month, the debts very quickly mount up and become unmanageable and unpayable.

Church Action on Poverty is calling on businesses to stop charging premium rates to their poorest customers and instead introduce social tariffs. United Utilities, water providers in the north west, already do this, and it is an enormous help to some of the people who have come for debt advice. Church Action on Poverty is also calling for a cap on the overall charges which can be levied by lending companies. Regulation for payday lenders is being discussed right now, so if you want to add your voice to calls for fairer lending, you can sign this petition.

Fair Say

How easy it has been for society to slowly but definitely increase the gap between rich and poor, and make life more and more difficult for those at the bottom of the heap. It is easy because those at the bottom lack power. Those with the money not only have power over business and policy decisions, but also over what you get to hear about, what gets discussed in the media, and the way we think about those who have not. Church Action on Poverty works with poor communities, not just to alleviate their needs, but also to give them a voice, to be able to advocate for themselves and bring about their own transformation.

I know I sound like an old-school leftie, battling against the hegemony of the establishment, as if we were lost in 1984 (the novel not the year) with the thought police. But I challenge you to read that report I mentioned in the last post – Poverty: Truth and Lies. And when you’ve read it, then tell me that those in power are not controlling the discourse.

Inequality: a blight on our nation?

I went to another lecture last night! Kate Pickett talking about “Inequality: the enemy between us” at Liverpool University. I’ve been interested in her work since I did my dissertation, so I thought it would be good to share it. She is co-author, with Richard Wilkinson, of a book called “The Spirit Level”, which explores the relationship between the level of equality in society with various other measures of wellbeing, more of which on the Equality Trust website.

The lecture started by taking us through the main findings of this research. As you might expect, as a country grows richer, so life-expectancy in that country improves. This is a general pattern across all countries until a certain level of income is reached. At the point where countries would be considered rich, any further increase in income no longer leads to its citizens living longer. Comparing rich countries by income and life-expectancy shows that there is no longer a link between the two. So, for example, Portugal and the USA are respectively poorest and richest in this group of countries, but both have relatively low life-expectancy, while Norway (richer), Spain (poorer) have better life-expectancy. Japan has the best figures, while its income is in the middle.

Image

This doesn’t seem to make sense, as higher income correlates to better life-expectancy within a country. However, when a measure of well-being (including life-expectancy) is plotted against a measure of equality, the results are startling. There is such a strong association between the two that Prof Pickett joked that it looks more like a physics experiment than the kind of outcome normally seen in social science research! We then went on to see many more examples of how inequality is associated with poorer outcomes for other indicators of health and wellbeing, such as the UNICEF measure of child wellbeing, which shocked us in the UK when we came last a couple of years ago. What this shows is that it is not money which leads to better health and longevity, but rank – a person’s status in society.

Image

So far, we had seen lots of data, and an interesting association. The next part of the lecture considered why inequality might lead to worse health and social wellbeing. Apparently, if you have more friends, you are less likely to catch colds, and if you cut yourself (not badly) you will heal more quickly if you are in a good relationship with your spouse. Who knew?! This is a demonstration of the impact which social affiliation has on our physiology – our healing processes and immune systems. Psychologists have demonstrated that tasks which involve “social-evaluative threat” are the most stressful to complete. That is, maths tasks might be a bit stressful, but they are much more stressful if you know your score will be revealed and compared with everyone else’s. In situations like this, performance worsens if you are subject to “stereotype threat” – ie if you belong to a group which stereotypically is expected to perform worse then you will (on average) perform worse. Stress has an impact on our immunity and on our ageing, and social status even affects our neuro-biology. Perhaps chronic stress is the reason for the differing outcomes – does greater inequality emphasise the differences between social status, causing greater stress and thereby impairing our health, happiness and cognitive function?

But the link between inequality and poor health etc is not just of academic interest. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in this group, doing badly on a whole host of measures. That is a lot of people suffering unnecessarily, only because our society is so unequal. Clearly inequality affects the poorest at the bottom of the pile, but the research in “The Spirit Level” indicates that actually, inequality worsens outcomes right across the spectrum of society.

The impact of inequality has a broader impact too. Pro-social behaviour is lower in more unequal societies. More equal societies have more peace, give more foreign aid, do more recycling and have more biodiversity. These are all the “bigger-than-self” kind of issues which are the concern of Common Cause, research which underpinned my dissertation. In the lecture, we heard more about the effect of “priming”. High status people are more likely to behave unethically, but getting the same people to think about the benefits of equality before carrying out a task leads to more ethical behaviour. The Common Cause report also discusses how priming can lead to more pro-social behaviour. This report encourages groups concerned with “bigger-than-self” issues to consider the values and frames in their own communication, to ensure that values which lead to more pro-social behaviour are continually being primed within society. Equality is itself one of those values.

The Q&A session after the lecture showed that there were many in the audience who were keen to see more equality in our society, including many who were unhappy with the way UK society not only seems very unequal, but stigmatises and excludes the poor. So, is there a solution? Can we make our society more equal? We can all start with our individual situation, challenging prejudice and language which stigmatises, and ensuring our own behaviour is not grasping and concerned only with our own status, but rather with the needs of others too. Prof Pickett suggested that it would be good to see greed and individualism become as unacceptable in future as racism and sexism have become today. She also mentioned a book with some interesting ideas “What shall we tell our daughters” by Melissa Benn. Has anyone read it?

Beyond individuals, what changes would we need to see in society to bring more equality? The need to lift the floor was identified as essential, for those who can and those who cannot work. But there is also a need to constrain at the top. This could be done in two ways (it seems to me that both could be done together). One choice is redistribution. This would involve progressive taxation and proper social security, including a living wage, rather than just a minimum wage which is not enough to live on. She urged us to vote for whoever is promising this, but also reminded us that all of this is vulnerable to being undone by a successive government. The other choice is to make a shift in our society so that equality is embedded within it. This would involve improving economic democracy, which will mainly happen within the workplace. It would mean strong trade unions (small ripple of applause at this!), workers on company boards, especially those that set remuneration, more employee ownership, more mutuals and co-operatives, and anything that leads to more community cohesion.

This all sounds good to me. But before I congratulate myself on egalitarian credentials, I was challenged by one answer she gave. There had been some discussion about the increase in narcissism, and Prof Pickett joked about a self-questionnaire to identify it which asks if you think you’d run the world better than it is currently run. So someone asked her what she would do if she ran the world, though she modified her horizons and only answered for this country. Are you ready? She said she would abolish all private education so that absolutely everyone would go to a state school, and she would introduce inheritance tax at close to 100%. I don’t feel like such a radical socialist now!