Tag Archives: justice

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.

Pushing the Boundaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is my neighbour?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building momentum for the Living Wage at Persimmon Homes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24/7 Smokescreen

doctorstrikeI’m backing the Junior Doctors’ strike all the way. Not least because being able to withdraw one’s labour is a vital part of our democracy and protection for workers against exploitation.

Yes, even doctors should have the right to withdraw their labour. They continued to cover emergency care. Senior doctors (consultants) stepped in to fill in the gaps and make sure patient care wasn’t compromised. Patient safety was never at risk. Yes, there was some disruption as clinics and operations were put off for another day. But quite frankly, that’s the point. Strikes are meant to be disruptive, otherwise there is no point in having them.

But mostly I’m supporting the strike because the government is deliberately and systematically undermining the NHS for its own ends. Its rhetoric about improving care and developing the 24/7 NHS is a complete red herring. Or total bollocks if you don’t mind me being less polite.

The government isn’t interested in improving patient care, only in saving money. We already have a 24/7 NHS. Nurses are on the wards all day every day. Perhaps there aren’t enough nurses. The scandal at the Mid Staffs hospitals led to an independent review to establish how many nurses is enough, but now this programme has been stopped.

Doctors are also on the wards all day every day. Shift patterns, rotas and on call may vary at night and at weekends, but doctors are there. Is the new contract accompanied by a plan to employ more junior doctors, so that more doctors are available? No, don’t be silly! The same number of doctors will be spread more thinly across the week because mostly they sit and twiddle their thumbs Monday to Friday.

But apparently it is possible to run a truly 24/7 NHS only with doctors and nurses. Because as yet I have heard no discussion at all about increasing the numbers or working patterns of anyone else who makes the NHS work. Despite suggesting he wants the NHS to offer the same services on Saturdays and Sundays as well as during the week, it seems that this will happen without any extra services being supplied by speech therapists, physiotherapist, occupational therapists, dietitians, clinical psychologists, pharmacists, radiographers, theatre staff, porters, phlebotomists etc etc etc. The list goes on and I’m sure I’ve left people out – please add your own profession in the comments if it’s you, sorry!

The media is fond of scare stories about our hospitals, and the Tories seem determined to blame the doctors. Targets for waits in A&E to be less than four hours are now way off being met. But this fuss over the junior doctors’ new contract is a smoke screen, and doctors are the scapegoat. The government isn’t really interested in making it better, because that will cost money. Jeremy Hunt might like to tell you that the Tories are investing more money in the NHS, but apart from being a trick with the figures, it is putting small amounts of money in at one end and taking vast amounts out at the other.

Why do patients have to wait for more than four hours in A&E? Why do people have to wait for operations or have them cancelled at short notice? Mostly, this is because there are not enough beds. Why are there not enough beds? Because they are already occupied, often by well people. People who are no longer sick enough to need to be in hospital, but are not well enough to go back to the circumstances they were living in before. People who need extra support at home, or a place in a residential home, or other form of social care. But they can’t go home because this care isn’t available or isn’t ready or takes too long to organise. Who supplies and pays for this kind of care? Mostly, local councils. And which area of government spending has seen the most dramatic and devastating cuts since the Conservatives came to power? Yes, local councils!

So I don’t believe for one minute that this dispute is between two groups of people who both genuinely believe they want the best for patient care and the future of the NHS. One side talks about a 24/7 NHS but has no intention of doing what it takes to look after the NHS. The other side is already delivering it.

Song of the Prophets

IMG_0784This is an edited version of my talk at St Andrews Psalter Lane church this morning, an joint Anglican/Methodist congregation in Sheffield. They are an eco-congregation, so it was great to be able to talk with them about climate change.

At Christian Aid, we believe that tackling climate change and caring for the environment is as integral to our faith as worship and prayer, not merely an interesting add-on, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones. But sometimes it’s good to think about why being green is an act of faith, and what it has to do with Christian Aid, an overseas development charity.

Some theology

Christian Aid has a unique perspective on climate change because it works through its partners with those who are experiencing climate change now. It is really important that we listen to the voices of our sisters and brothers in the Global South, the theologians who live with climate change every day. Christian Aid describes them as modern-day prophets. For more detail , take a look at this report, ‘Song of the Prophets’. As it says (p9) , “climate change is real, [it is happening now,] and its impact is experienced by those who are least responsible and most vulnerable.”

Christians are called to act on climate change not just because we have been tasked with looking after the world, but because it is an issue of justice. “Those who will bear the brunt of predicted changes are the poorest people in the world”(p7). Nazmul Chowdhury, a Christian Aid partner in Bangladesh, put it like this, ‘Forget about making poverty history. Climate change will make poverty permanent.’ (p7) Our reading from Deuteronomy 24:14-22 shows some of the ways God, a God of justice, asked his people to take care of the vulnerable members of society – the alien (or foreigner), the orphan and the widow. Guillermo Kerber, from Uruguay, says that today, ‘victims of climate change are another face of the vulnerable ones’ (p12). If you like, we have a duty of care. To act on climate change is to act to bring justice for the vulnerable. To not act or to fob off the global poor means we are perpetuating injustice.

The reading from Deuteronomy also reveals that our relationship with the land is not one which exploits every last drop from every corner. Owning or farming the land doesn’t give us the right to extract everything – everything the land produces is much more like a generous gift. Dr Sathianathan Clarke, from the Episcopal Church of South India suggests that the poorest communities in the world seem to understand this inter-dependent relationship much better than we do, not surprisingly as the poor “mostly live in close proximity to the ebb and flow of the natural world” (p14). Have we become ‘environmentally illiterate’? Do we ‘understand the importance of nature as God’s gift for all living beings’? (p14) Even more challenging, the report suggests that “One reason why the powerful do not hear is that the very economic systems that keep some in the world rich while others are poor are implicated in causing climate change” (p15).

But all is not lost, because our faith is one of hope. We have a vision of a future where God’s justice prevails. Climate change is a spiritual crisis, bound up with our consumerism, our failure to act for justice, and we need to repent. But as we heard in our second reading (John 1:1-14), it is significant that the word of God became flesh and lived among us. “We are not being lifted out into a spiritual realm to escape the earthiness of creation, but being remade for a renewed earth.” (p20)

Summary

  1. Climate change is a justice issue
  2. The global poor who are experiencing climate change also have perspective on our relationship to the earth that we should learn from
  3. We are not without hope as the incarnate God will renew the earth

Work with partners

So, in the spirit of learning let me tell you about one of Christian Aid’s partners.

Christian Aid’s work to deal with the impact of climate change has many facets – disaster relief in the face of extreme weather, adapting to changing weather patterns and building resilience and self-sufficiency for poor communities, and helping communities speak out for their rights and support to their own governments.

I want to tell you about a project in Mali. Christian Aid partner Mali Folkecenter is helping the community to develop their own solar power. This part of Mali is not connected to any national grid, and to do so would be prohibitively expensive. But they have plenty energy freely available from the sun, they just need to be able to harness it. Mali Folkecenter helps the community to install solar panels and a local grid, and trains the community to be able to maintain it. Electricity means that children are able to do their homework in the evening once it is dark, which means they can keep up with their school work and stay at school, leading to long-term benefits for the individuals, families and the whole community. It also means local businesses can be more productive, and enables new business, benefitting not just from light but from refrigeration too. (you can watch this video which the people in church couldn’t see!)

This is one way that Christian Aid is helping a community to develop without adding to carbon emissions. This solar project means they can leapfrog fossil fuels altogether, just like mobile phone technology has enable communities to get connected but bypassing expensive cable laying for landline telephones.

I really like this project because it encapsulates another key facet of Christian Aid. Christian Aid works through partnerships for change. It doesn’t send so-called experts from the UK to do development to poor people. It works with grass-roots organisations already at work in the local area, who build and deliver projects which best serve the needs of the local community. And partnerships are not a one-way relationship. Dependence, learning and support should go both ways. So we have lessons to learn from the community in Mali. Think about our own energy provision and consumption in this country. In theory we have a free market, with competition to make prices cheaper and give better service to the consumer. But we all recognise that this isn’t really the case, and the big six energy companies have an effective monopoly (or oligopoly, technically). What If our energy was decentralised and produced closer to where it is needed through solar panels on homes and other local projects? Power would genuinely be in the hands of the people, the inefficiencies and lost energy when power goes through the grid would be diminished, the grip of the energy companies would be broken, and we could move on from dirty fossil fuels pumping carbon into the atmosphere. So let’s learn from this community which is breaking free from fossil fuels!

Campaigning

And breaking free from fossil fuels is the final thing I want to talk to you about this morning. I’ve talked about why we care about climate change, and some of the things Christian Aid is doing. So I’m going to finish by sharing something you can do about climate change, in partnership with Christian Aid.

As well as working with poor communities round the world, Christian Aid also campaigns with its supporters in the UK to challenge and change the structures that keep people poor. These are very often the economic structures we live within here in the UK, as I mentioned before. If we are serious about cutting carbon emissions and stopping global temperatures rise by more than 20C then we need to break free from fossil fuels – to make the Big Shift to renewables. I think I’m preaching to the converted here, but I hope that this campaign will give you the tools to talk to other people who are not so sure.

Does anyone here still use floppy discs, or video tapes, or dial-up internet? I still say I’m taping something off the telly, even though there’s no tape involved and it’s all digital. These things are still hanging around, but they are old-fashioned, out of date, and it would be ridiculous1 to invest in them. This is how we should feel about fossil fuels. In fact, this is how business is beginning to think about fossil fuels, and so Christian Aid wants to take this further and build up a momentum for taking finance out of fossil fuels. We are starting with coal, because this is the dirtiest, most polluting fossil fuel. We need coal to go the way of floppy discs. We believe that here in the UK we should stop burning coal to make electricity by 2023. We should stop funding businesses to look for and mine coal in other countries. And we should take our money out of coal and shift it to investment in renewable energy (including in helping those whose work currently depends on coal to be trained to find alternative employment).

There are lots of ways you can get involved in this campaign through social media, by talking to your friends about it, by writing to your MP. Please ask me about it afterwards. But today, I’m just going to ask you to sign the petition I’ve brought, with those three asks – 1. a concrete plan to stop burning coal, 2. stop supporting coal extraction abroad, and 3. shift the money out of coal and into renewables, green jobs and a low-carbon economy.

Now is the time, especially as world leaders are meeting in Paris at the end of November to talk about climate change. Don’t let the enormity of the problem put you off. Climate change is a justice issue, at the heart of our faith. But our God is a God of justice who is committed to renewing the earth and his people. His people are at work in places like Mali, making a difference to the lives of the vulnerable – the alien, the orphan and the widow. His people are at work in the UK, campaigning for the environment. St Andrews is making a difference here with its plans to install solar panels. So please keep on making a difference. Come and sign the Christian Aid petition after the service, and join in the event in Sheffield to mark the Paris talks on Saturday afternoon, November 28th.

For the love of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.”

Our Fair City

Fair city logoThe conversation has started! It started last week, in fact, on Tuesday 13th January with the launch of the Sheffield Fair City Campaign.

Actually, I guess the conversation really started in January 2013 with the publication of the Sheffield Fairness Commission report. It tells the story of inequality through the 83 bus route. “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.” I talked about it in an earlier blog post “It’s not fair”.

Two years on, the commission is still ambitious that Sheffield is becoming and will continue to become a fairer city. But we all have our part to play. It’s not just the strategic decision makers who make this happen. Every one of us must play our part. If this city is going to be fairer, those of us who currently have a lot might in future have to have a little less. Those of us with plenty resources will need to share them with those of us with fewer. We are fellow citizens together in this great city, working together to find solutions in the best interest of us all.

The Sheffield Fair City Campaign has 10 principles:

  • Civic responsibility – all residents to contribute to making the city fairer and for all citizens to have a say in how the city works
  • Those with the most resources should make the biggest contributions
  • The commitment to fairness must be for the long-term
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The commitment to fairness must be across the whole city
  • 
Preventing inequalities is better than trying to cure them
  • 
To be seen to act in a fair way as well as acting fairly
  • 
Those in greatest need should take priority
  • 
An open continuous campaign for fairness in the city
  • 
Fairness must be a matter of balance between different groups, communities and generations in the city
  • 
The city’s commitment to fairness must be both demonstrated and monitored in an annual report

This will truly only work if we are all in it together. It hinges on our collective responsibility to each other. If you live or work in Sheffield, you can join the conversation and get involved. If you think you can sign up to the fairness principles, click on the website and make a fairness pledge. If you want to see this campaign spread throughout the city, you can become a fairness champion. I’ve only been in this city a year, and one of the first things people told me about was the East/West divide. Let’s see what part we can all play in overcoming that divide and making Sheffield a fair city.