Tag Archives: living wage

Why I’m voting Labour

vote labour

Jesus told a story about a group of people on zero-hours contracts. Well, not exactly, I’m paraphrasing, but I think this captures it.

Anyway, this group of people would turn up at their Agency first thing in the morning, hoping there would be work for them. One morning, very early, Mrs Merlot from the fruit farm also came into the Agency, looking for workers. She arranged for 10 of them to come and work for her. “It’ll be hard work,” she said, “and a long day, 8 ‘til 6, with an hour for lunch. But I’ll pay you a proper wage for the day, £8.45 an hour is the Living Wage, so that’s £76.05 for the day.”

The workers agreed, and went off in her mini-bus to work. The rest of the workers stayed at the office. They didn’t dare go home, in case someone else came in looking for workers, but they didn’t know how long they would be hanging around waiting.

At 9 o’clock, Mrs Merlot came back. “Everything is coming ripe at the same time,” she said. “I need another bus-full of workers. Same deal as before.” “You mean £8.45 an hour,” asked one of the people waiting. “No, £76.05 for the day, until 6pm, enough to live on,” she replied.

So 10 more people agreed to the terms and were driven off in the minibus.

At noon, and again at 3pm, Mrs Merlot came back again, in need of another 10 workers to come and work in the fields until 6pm, again offering £76.05 for the day’s work. Finally, she returned just before 5pm.

“Are you lot still here,” she said to the raggle-taggle bunch of dejected workers who had waited all day in vain for some hours work. “Have you had nothing better to do? Never mind, I’ve still got work to be done. Get in, and you can work the last hour for me, just like the others.”

The last 8 people climbed aboard the minibus and soon arrived at the field, which was full of people picking fruit.

When the rest of the workers learned that the last 8 people would be getting paid the same amount for working an hour as those who had worked all day, there was outrage. At 6pm, when the workers came to be paid, someone who had been there since 8am made his point.

“This is totally unfair. We’ve been slaving away all day in the field, and now we discover that we’re not getting any more than this lot, who only turned up for an hour!”

“Have you got a problem with that?” asked Mrs Merlot. “You agreed terms, and came to work on that basis. I’ll pay you everything we agreed. The worker deserves a decent wage for her or his time. It’s up to me what I choose to pay, it’s my business.”

Perhaps this is really a story about eternal life, a gift whether you are reconciled to God near the beginning or near the end of your life. But it is told as a picture of the kingdom of heaven, and I believe we should be in the business of bringing kingdom values to bear in this world and not just the next. After all, we do pray, ‘your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’.

It was important to the owner of the farm that the workers were paid what was just and right for a day’s work. Without a proper wage, workers cannot pay for their homes, food, and family responsibilities. Wages today don’t seem to be right or just. That’s why I’m an advocate for the Living Wage, so people have enough to live on. And that’s also why we need to stop casual labour becoming standard practice. Zero-hours contracts for people who are looking for regular work; counting people as self-employed to avoid holiday and sick pay; the gig economy, where income is unpredictable; and care workers not paid for their travel time. All these things make work insecure, and therefore make life insecure.

And the owner of the farm was also very clear that she would decide what to do with her money. In the kingdom of heaven, she decided to pay it to her workers. Meanwhile on earth, less and less money is being paid in wages, and more and more is being paid out to the holders of capital. In the US, since the mid 70s, wages as a percentage of national income have fallen 7%, while corporate profits have risen 7% (see this article).  Across the world, the same pattern is seen, the ‘labour share’ of national income has been falling. A falling labour share implies that even though workers are more productive and make more money for the businesses they work for, these gains no longer get returned to workers in the form of rises in pay. Instead, an ever larger share of the benefits of growth is given to owners of capital. Even among wage-earners the rich have done vastly better than the rest: the share of income earned by the top 1% of workers has increased since the 1990s even as the overall labour share has fallen (more here).

It’s not always easy to articulate the relationship between faith and politics. When I read the Bible, it’s easy to see God’s concern for the poor and the values of justice shining out. But it’s less obvious whether this translates into a right-wing or left-wing approach to achieving those aims. It’s also possible to look at earthly versions of these approaches, that is, to see whether the actual political parties are concerned for the poor and for justice. To me, this also demonstrates an obvious answer, but others see it differently . So I was looking for a more fundamental expression of what feels incontestable in my core, but isn’t always easy to express. So here it is, for me, a Biblical model of why, as a Christian, I am and could only be a Labour voter. Check out the Labour Party manifesto on a fair deal at work.

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!

The value of the Living Wage

living wage logoEveryone has a ‘week’ these days, and every week seems to have been claimed by someone or something. This week is no exception – it’s Living Wage Week. It’s probably lots of other weeks too, but this is the one I’m going for! Monday saw the announcement of the new living wage hourly rate – £8.25 (£9.40 in London), a 40p an hour increase on last year. Based on a working week of 37.5 hours, a living wage should provide enough to have a minimum acceptable standard of living.

I’m so keen on promoting the Living Wage because it tells a different story to the clamour in the popular press suggesting that cause of all our woes is people being dependent on the state and getting something for nothing. Talking about the living wage counteracts this.

Let’s start with the name, living wage. To talk about a living wage makes the case that someone’s wages should be enough to live on. We ask people what they do for a living, yet we seem to have forgotten that working full-time should mean we earn enough to pay the bills. And one huge reminder that this isn’t the case, as the government loves to tell us, is the rising tax credit bill. Please always remember that only the tiniest part of the welfare budget goes on out-of-work benefits. Most of it actually goes on pensions, and the next biggest part is paid to people in work in the form of housing benefit and tax credits. There are two ways to cut the tax credit bill – the devastating but easy route currently going through parliament whereby payments are simply cut. Or the route which actually takes care of people, whereby wages are increased and people qualify for lower or no payments because they don’t need them.

Reminding ourselves that work should pay and the worker is worthy of his or her wages (Luke 10:7) should restore our respect for workers. We hear the treasury talk a lot about ‘wealth creators’ and how we should nurture them. But I don’t mean rich business executives who hid their money in off-shore bank accounts, creating wealth only for themselves. The real wealth creators are the workers in industry and business, as no-one can make money if there is no-one to do the work. Even workers in public service contribute to wealth creation as they build the stable society in which business flourishes. Over the last 30 years there has been a steady transfer of wealth away from workers’ wages and into the hands of shareholders. The Living Wage is a small way to rebalance this and make sure that work and workers are valued.

One of the best things about the Living Wage for me is how it is calculated. The rate is set annually by an independent research body at Loughborough University. The level is not set by Labour or Conservative, but the Living Wage does enjoy cross-party support. The rate is calculated to enable people to have an acceptable standard of living. What do you need to be able to afford to provide for your family and belong to society? The answer to this question determines the rate, and the answer is not given by politicians or university academics. The research asks members of the public, who decide what is an acceptable standard of living. In an age of suspicion generated by the Tory narrative setting up false divisions between so-called ‘workers and shirkers’, this means the Living Wage is rooted in social consensus. This is what ordinary people think other ordinary people need to live, no-one is taking advantage of anyone else.

Finally, I think it needs to be said that the Living Wage is not the same as the so-called ‘national living wage’ announced by George Osborne in the summer budget. The government rate, which comes into force in April 2016, is based on the labour market and what other people earn, and does not bear any relation to what is actually needed to live in society. It is set at £7.20 an hour, so is lower than the Living Wage, it does not apply to under 25s, unlike the Living Wage, and it is compulsory. It is, in effect, just a raising of the minimum wage, but only for over 25s. The Living Wage is voluntary, aspirational wage, a measure of best practice for employers. Employers can be credited as Living Wage employers when measures are put in place to pay all staff (included contracted out staff) the Living Wage rate.

The Living Wage Foundation says that the Living Wage is good for business, good for families and good for society. On top of this, I believe the whole concept is good for us. It says that people are the most important part of how we build society, that the work people do is valuable and those who do it are shown value accordingly. It is decided on by the people for the people, it is a truer representation that we are all in it together than anything we’ve seen from the Tories. Join the movement here!

The weekly shop

living wage logoYou probably saw in the news last week that Lidl has agreed to pay all its staff a Living Wage. This is great news, and a major breakthrough for people on low wages. Surprisingly, what makes this such a breakthrough is that Lidl is the first supermarket to agree to pay the Living Wage. Not the upmarket Waitrose, nor those with the biggest share of the market like Tesco, but the cut-price bargain brand Lidl.

The Living Wage is an independently calculated hourly rate which attempts to express how much someone who works full time needs to earn in order to live a decent life, able to participate in our society. It is currently set at £7.85 an hour, or £9.15 for people living in London. This should not be confused with the inaccurately named “national living wage” announced by the government in the July budget of £7.20 an hour. Being less than the already calculated living wage, it is not actually enough to live on, and when changes to tax credits come into play, it will fall even further short.

So, having shouted about the Living Wage for long enough, I thought I’d better put my money where my mouth is and go and shop there. I know I’ve lived in Sheffield nearly two years, but most of it still feels new to me, but I managed get from Ecclesall Road to Chesterfield Road without getting lost.

There’s always issues when shopping somewhere new, because you never quite know where everything is when you get there. And I was in a rush. But my trip was surprisingly stress free, helped by the fact that I expected not to be able to buy everything I wanted so didn’t spend ages searching. I couldn’t find Fair Trade coffee, hot chocolate or bananas, but a friend in Norfolk assures me she can buy such things when she goes to Lidl, so I’ll keep looking. I also couldn’t find the particular dairy-free products I need for a family member (soya desserts, dairy-free margarine etc). But most other things on my list were on the shelves.

It wasn’t quite the bargain palace I expected either. If you buy branded products, then they are cheaper in Lidl. But I don’t normally bother with that, and so found that the branded products in Lidl were not cheaper than the usual supermarket own-brand that I buy. (Some of you know where I usually shop, but I’m not going to divulge it here – you’ll judge me!) But Lidl’s own-brand products were cheaper. Now we’ll just have to see how they taste. I’ve had complaints about the Lidl version of Shreddies, but the baked beans I ate today were great.

Will I shop there again? Yes. I’ll need to be better organised, as I’ll need to go somewhere else as well to get everything I need. But the staff were friendly, and the shelves weren’t full of really annoying offers that aren’t actually offers at all. Though I’ve seen today that Morrisons has agreed to pay its staff £8.20 an hour – over and above the living wage. Perhaps I’ll have to go there next week!

Bishop of Sheffield to Mr Cameron

The Bishop of Sheffield posted a brilliant blog on 11th May, following the election. It’s so good, I’ve reproduced it all here. You can find the original on the Diocese of Sheffield website.

The Prime Minister will not be short of advice as he appoints the Cabinet and prepares the Queen’s Speech.  There is a particular bible story about accepting and weighing advice that I would suggest it might be helpful for him to read and ponder in the first days of the new government.

It’s a story about transition.  King Solomon has died.  All the tribes of Israel have gathered to make his son, Rehoboam, the new king.  But there is widespread discontent.  A delegation comes from the northern tribes, requesting an easing of their burdens.

Rehoboam has a choice to make and he asks for three days to reflect.  He consults two sets of advisors.  The first group, his father’s counsellors, advise him to listen to the people, to be their servant, to reach out to the disaffected and lead from this foundation.

The second group, his own contemporaries, give opposite advice.  Discontent should be met with harshness.  The burdens on the north should be increased still further.  The new government should start as it means to go on.

Reheboam makes his choice.  It is a fateful one.  He listens to the younger, harsher, more strident voices.  A few years later, the kingdom is divided, at war, impoverished and in chaos.

I have no doubt that David Cameron will receive both sorts of advice in the coming days.  There will be those who counsel him to reach out to the whole nation, to connect with the disaffected, to listen to the people and to be their servant.  But there will be those who see the Conservative majority as a mandate to fulfill and go beyond the manifesto commitments, blind to the risk of increasing the burdens of those who already bear the heavy load (of sickness, disability or the struggle to find sustainable employment).

The Prime Minister’s speech on the steps of Downing Street on Thursday moved clearly in the first direction.  David Cameron spoke of one nation and sought to connect more deeply with those who had voted for other parties, with the people of Scotland, with the regions.  He promised to bring our country together, to help working people and give “the poorest people the chance of training, a job and hope for the future”.

Much of this rhetoric is encouraging but now it needs to be supported and backed up with action.  That action needs to be taken swiftly to begin to draw the United Kingdom back together again and begin to build for the future.  The choices made in the next few days about priorities and plans for legislation in the next year are critical.

So here are some suggestions for a big, open offer from Mr Cameron to every part of the United Kingdom, and especially to those who voted for other parties.

  • Make an early, concrete and clear commitment to safeguarding the environment and to leadership in the key climate conferences this year through the appointments you make and in the Queen’s Speech.  Action on climate change is integral to economic growth.
  • Abolish the bedroom tax.  It hasn’t worked.  It has generated more resentment than revenue.  Repealing it would demonstrate a capacity for change and to think again.
  • Promise an early review of benefits sanctions as part of the ongoing reform of welfare.  Sanctions cause massive hardship.  They are responsible for a significant number of people needing foodbanks.  They are tangential to the main welfare reforms.  In the meantime suspend sanctions for families with children and people suffering from mental ill health.
  • Encourage the Living Wage as part of growing a sustainable, strong national economy.
  • Take a long view of constitutional reform.  Acknowledge the concern revealed by the election outcome.  Entrust it to some kind of independent commission which has time and space to think.  Don’t rush the key decisions which will affect the whole future of the United Kingdom.
  • Revisit the Big Society ideas, if not the language.  Place active partnership, between national and local government and the faith and voluntary sector, front and centre again, not as a replacement of government initiative but complementary to it.  Make sure there is clear leadership for these ideas at Cabinet level.
  • Accelerate the provision of truly affordable housing and prioritise this as part of investment in the future.  Protect and strengthen social housing provision to ensure that everyone has access to a decent home at a price they can afford.
  • Reach out to the English regions as well as to Scotland in swift and tangible ways.  In particular make investment in the northern powerhouse a key priority for the first two years of the new government.

The word Minister means servant.  A Prime Minister is called to be one who serves the whole nation.  If Reheboam had listened to different advice the whole story of Israel would have been different.  I hope that David Cameron will take a moment to read and ponder his story: to listen to all the people, to lighten burdens, and to build one nation, for the benefit of all.

+Steven Sheffield

(The story of Reheboam’s choice is told in 1 Kings 12)

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

Psst! Do you want to know a secret?

It’s been quiet on these pages over the summer holidays. Not that stuff doesn’t happen, but getting up late and being out of the country means I’ve missed most of it. The terrible distressing stories from Iraq, Syria and Gaza haven’t gone unnoticed, but I haven’t felt able to make an informed, helpful comment on these issues.

Something else has been slipping by unnoticed, though. I expect it has slipped by most people, without them ever realising it was happening. I’m talking about TTIP. See – you’ve still no idea what that is! And if I tell you it stands for Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, are you any the wiser?

It is a deal being negotiated between the US and the EU to removed barriers to trade between the two regions. So you’d expect this blog to have something to say in criticism of an unfettered free market. And I do have a problem with the elevation of “the market” as the solution to all our problems, economic at any rate. But my problem with TTIP runs deeper than this.

For a start, there’s the fact that most people have never heard of it. Negotiations are being carried out in secret, and most of our MPs don’t have any idea about the details of the deal. Its remit is wide ranging, and it needs to be subject to scrutiny. In the interests of democracy, the general public should know what is being discussed, understand its likely impact on our society, and have a say in whether they agree with this or not.

I have more concerns because most of the “barriers” to trade between the EU and the US are in the form of the higher levels of safety standards, environmental protection and workers rights which we have in the EU. Clearly it is better for business if standards are regularised, so that products are compliant across both regions. But lets guess which way standards are likely to change in areas where they differ.

Another aspect of the deal would be to force public services to open themselves up to private companies bidding for contracts, removing any option for governments to choose to keep them in public ownership. Maybe you think private ownership is a good thing, maybe you don’t. Right now, that’s a debate that is raging in the UK with regard to the NHS. If this deal is agreed, there will be no debate, and the NHS could soon be in the hands of American private healthcare companies.

TTIP could prevent better laws to protect our environment and combat climate change
TTIP could prevent better laws to protect our environment and combat climate change

But most insidious of all is the erosion of government power to introduce legislation to protect workers, consumers and the environment. If governments want to implement a living wage, or raise standards for air and water pollution, for example, and a business feels this will impact on their profits, they will be able to sue that government. Not through the usual channels of the national court, but by taking them to an ad hoc secretive arbitration panel, overseen by corporate lawyers. Businesses already hold way to much sway over government policy. This further diminishes government’s ability to make policies for the public good, where people’s taxes will end up paying for corporations to keep the law.

I don’t think you need to be against free trade to recognise that this deal, as it stands, is bad news. Large multinational corporations don’t need more power. It is difficult enough to make sure they pay proper taxes, don’t exploit their workers and take responsibility for tackling climate change and taking care of the environment. And we certainly don’t want to be handing over power to big business in secret without knowing what is being negotiated and given up on our behalf. The secrecy and the strait-jacketing of our elected governments make this deal an attack on democracy.

If you’d like to raise your voice in opposition, you can join the campaign on the 38 degrees website. If you’d like to read more, try George Monbiot or this blog.

Fair Pay Fortnight

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In a twist of irony, I was invited to attend a working lunch last Friday – the day I was participating in the End Hunger Fast. Even more appropriately, the lunch was part of the TUC’s Fair Pay Fortnight on the subject of low pay and payday lending, so it seemed right to go while I was fasting in order to campaign on the same issues! As well as the regional TUC and a representative from USDAW, Paul Blomfield, the local Sheffield MP, was one of the speakers.

Some interesting facts and figures were presented on the day. Low pay in the region means that workers in Yorkshire and Humberside earn £38 per week less than the national average, while 20% of people in Sheffield earn less than the Living Wage, a wage which is considered to be the minimum needed for an acceptable standard of living. No wonder The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that more people living in poverty are working than are not.

This is a climate where high-cost lending flourishes. We were told that Wonga makes 10,400 loans every day, a figure which has risen by 70% in the last year. Wonga can make £1.2 million profit every week even though 2/5 of borrowers struggle to repay loans. In fact, people who default and roll-over their loan to the following month make more money for the lenders than those who repay on time. Additional interest, fees and default charges are where the money is, adding up to a perverse business model where the target market is those who can’t quite afford to pay.

The proliferation of payday lenders is a symptom of the wider economic climate. Over time since the 1980s there has been a shift of 8% in the make-up of GDP away from wages towards profits (and thereby dividends). The cost of living crisis is as much about falling wages as it is about rising prices. Wages have been frozen, jobs have changed from full-time to part-time, from secure to insecure, and the minimum wage has become the default norm instead of the safety net minimum (and has fallen in value as well).

This was all very interesting. But the best thing about the meeting was the chance to talk to other people in the room about our past experiences and ideas to make changes in the future. And then, the convenor of the meeting took our ideas and formulated them into a plan of action. So refreshing to move from words to actually doing something about it!

There needs to be some fleshing out of the ideas but four strands of action were suggested. Firstly to work alongside the local credit union to promote it, and encourage people from all walks of life so save and borrow with it. Secondly to launch a campaign against advertising by payday lenders, to stop advertising to children and to regulate advertisements in a similar way to how gambling adverts are regulated. Thirdly the TUC would undertake some research to find out which local businesses pay a Living Wage, so people can make an informed choice about where their money goes. And finally, to encourage people to belong to unions, as this improves their pay-bargaining strength. I hope it doesn’t take too long before a way to get involved in these actions gets back to me. In the meantime, I’m going to find out if Sheffield Diocese is a Living Wage employer.

Lent and Hunger

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who benefits from benefits?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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