Thursday, 18 December 2014

The growing hunger crisis in Britain demands a response that goes beyond simply providing bigger and better food banks

Christmas is a time of good cheer and consumer excess for many but in this rich country it is also a time when the growing levels of poverty become most visible. Nowhere is that more so this year than with the growing numbers of people going to foodbanks.

The Trussell Trust, which runs the nationwide network of foodbanks, reports 913,000 going to foodbanks over the past year – an increase of 129,000.
The Trust point out that there have been 500,000 people coming to foodbanks in the six month period between April and September this year, 38% more than for the comparable period last year.

Currently, 45% of food bank referrals are due to benefit delays and changes, including sanctions and 22% of the 500,000 that came cite low income as the main trigger for the crisis.
So foodbanks are flourishing. The question though must be what should their role be moving forward?
An excellent report funded by the Church of England and compiled by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty has credited the foodbanks for staging “a social Dunkirk.”
The report, Feeding Britain, makes three main recommendations, first that there are changes to the benefits system to ensure people are not thrown into poverty. 
Second, that low pay must be addressed, which means the living wage being implemented across the country (£7.85 an hour and £9.15 in London), thereby putting more money into people’s pockets.
The third suggestion is the creation of a new generation of “super” food banks, which combine food aid with welfare advice and advocacy. This network of foodbanks would bring together the existing players with supermarkets and the state.

It is this third recommendation that some see as a step toward institutionalising foodbanks as a permanent fixture, rather than seeing them as a temporary measure to deal with a hunger crisis.
The story of foodbanks in Canada provides a salutary lesson.  Foodbanks were introduced in Canada in the early 1980s in what was perceived as a tough economic time.

There are now 700 foodbanks in Canada, providing help to 800,000 people. The number has increased by nearly 100,000 over the past six years – as the country has come out of economic recession. The foodbanks have taken on a role previously undertaken by the welfare system.
Writing in the Guardian, Graham Riches, emeritus professor and former director of the School of Social Work, University of British Columbia, tells how foodbanks have become a second tier of the benefits system in Canada. “The sad fact is that in Canada, with its 30-year track record of increasingly corporatised food charity, recent national data shows that one in eight households or 3.9 million individuals (11.6% of the population) are still experiencing food insecurity,” said Riches, who criticises the Feeding Britain report for only addressing the supply side of the question and thereby recommending “a vanguard role for the charitable food industry and food waste in the battle against structurally caused food poverty.”
He argues that this can only lead to “the long-term institutionalisation of food banking and diminish political appetite for progressive reform."
Riches argues that in Canada public perception of food charity is that it should take care of domestic hunger. “Governments can look the other way,” said Riches, who suggests that a right to food should be entrenched in domestic law backed by international statute, then the obligation to deal with hunger would be put fully back under the responsibilities of the state.

There has to be a concern than in Britain that the proliferation of foodbanks  is not at the behest of the demise of the welfare state. It is right that Churches and charities should continue to meet the need of those unable to feed themselves. However, they must persistently challenge as to why, in such a rich country, that boasts more than 100 billionaires, a million people need to visit food banks.

The challenge for the Church in particular is very clear, it must provide a justice based response to the poverty crisis, not just charity. This means not just stepping up to provide a network of bigger and better foodbanks but also to ask what needs to be done to end the poverty that makes this service required in the first place. Measures like the living wage and addressing benefits provision issues are no doubt part of the solution but there also needs to be a fairer distribution of wealth. There need to be clear steps taken to close the gap between the richest and poorest in society, so that increasing numbers at the poor end are not forced toward charity based band aids like foodbanks. These charitable safety nets cannot replace the welfare state which has been underpinned by a basic right that people do not go hungry in our society.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Final act of veteran peace campaigner Sarah Hipperson

Veteran Greenham Common peace campaigner Sarah Hipperson has completed the final act in a peace drama that has dominated the last 30 years of her life.
The final act saw the Greenham Common Women’s Commemorative Peace Garden, created by the women peace activists, handed over last month to the people of Newbury.
Sarah, 87, recalled that the land had effectively been occupied by the military for many years, before the women peace protesters arrived in the 1980s. It was as a result of legal proceedings brought by the women that it was finally established that the military had no right being on the land, as it belonged to the people. It was the final victory for the women who had so bravely fought against the stationing in the 1980s by the US government of nuclear missiles on the Greenham Common site.

Sarah had lived a relatively straightforward life up until the momentous day in 1983 when she decided to go down and join the women’s peace camp in Greenham.

A native of Glasgow, she became a nurse and mid-wife in her late teens, delivering babies in the Govern area. She then decided to emigrate to Canada, where she lived for 16 years, nursing, getting married and having five children. She returned to England in the 1970s, settling in the east London suburb of Wanstead.

Life at this time involved being a member of the local justice and peace group at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, as well as sitting on the bench as a Justice of the Peace.

During the early 1980s Sarah became increasingly frustrated with trying to raise awareness of nuclear weapons in Wanstead.

She showed Helen Caldacott’s film “Critical Mass” about the dangers of nuclear weapons. “There would be a numbing effect but it went no further than that,” said Sarah, who became a member of CND in the 1970s and worked with Catholic Peace Action.

Moving to Greenham Common in 1983, proved a liberating experience. The catalogue of events that followed over the next couple of decades, with a series of peaceful actions, court cases and imprisonments, all formed part of the work.

“The work is to achieve complete nuclear disarmament,” said Sarah. “We have all been involved in the crime that presents itself as nuclear deterrent. The bottom line is that we will use weapons that are 80 per cent more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, in the case of Trident, as part of the defence policy of this country. As a Christian I have never been able to live with that.”

For Sarah, the whole concept of nuclear weapons runs contrary to the word of God. “Nuclear weapons will finish off the planet through which God’s creation finds a way to live out the life given to it,” she said.
Sarah found Greenham Common a highly spiritual place, where she was able to channel her anger by getting involved.

She recalled a 10 week period in 1984, when a group of women were on the common, with virtually nothing but what they stood up in. “Then the police were called to go and police the miners strike,” she recalled. “The tents could then come back onto the land.”

Over the years, Sarah was repeatedly arrested for peaceful direct actions, like blocking vehicles at Greenham Common and cutting fences. She served 22 sentences, the longest being 28 days in Holloway for criminal damage. “I never paid a fine,” said Sarah proudly.

Appearing in court gave the opportunity to openly question the legality of nuclear weapons. There have been successes, such as when the Law Lords declared that the bye-laws that the Ministry Defence had been using to remove women from Greenham Common were invalid. “We had every right to be there, the military had no right to be on the common,” said Sarah. The women also saw the fence around the common declared illegal.

When the missiles were removed from Greenham Common in the early 1990s, Sarah continued her protest against Trident. This involved actions at nearby Aldermaston. 

The Greenham Common airbase is now long gone but Sarah and some of the women established a garden there in 2002 to mark the action. “It was an undeveloped piece of land, when we put tents on it, now it has sculptures, stones and special plants,” said Sarah.

Part of the garden has been dedicated to Helen Thomas, who was knocked down by a military vehicle and killed, aged only 22, during the protest.

The garden has been a continuation of Sarah’s life’s work over the past 12 years. She has raised £78,000 for the garden, most of it coming from small donations made by hundreds of people.   

Sarah sees the handing over of the peace garden as her final act, completing the Greenham cycle. The land being handed back to the people. She recalled that at times during the protest, the local people were far from friendly.

“On one occasion, we were getting some shopping in Tescos and at the check out the assistant would not ring the sale through. She said there is disease at the camp,” said Sarah, who recalled how another of the quick thinking women then told the women to ‘go round the shop and touch everything – especially the meat.” The assistant then took the women’s money and they went on their way.

On another occasion, Sarah got on a bus, after a court appearance, to go back to the Greenham Common site. The bus driver refused to move until she got off the bus. A stand off ensued before he finally drove off. She recalled getting off short of the camp, because she knew the driver out of spite would not stop at the camp but go straight on and dump her in the country.

These type of happenings underline how strong the feelings went on both sides, so the creation of the garden and now its return to the people of Newbury marks the final act of reconciliation of all sides.

Recently, Sarah was reunited with some comrades from her peace actions at the funeral of Jesuit Father Gerry Hughes. He was a friend for many years. At the funeral Sarah was given a copy of his final book, published just a couple of weeks before he died. Father Hughes had been intending to give the book to Sarah in person but events intervened, so that was never possible.

Sarah’s battle maybe over but the struggle against nuclear weapons goes on. There are the ongoing protests against Trident at Faslane and other parts of the country. Sarah believes that the legality of these destructive weapons need to be tested in the international courts.

In a world that seems to get more violent with each passing decade, the struggle for peace goes on. Sarah Hipperson and the women of Greenham played their part in moving that struggle a little further forward.

*In tribute to Sarah, the woman who really would not be moved - Universe - 12/12/2014

* Greenham Common's final act - New Internationalist - see: - 12/12/2014

* Landmark in the struggle for peace - Morning Star - 13/12/2014

Thursday, 11 December 2014

How many placed in a similar situation to Christopher Jeffries now reside in the prison system

One of the questions that comes from the excellent ITV drama “the Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries” is just how many similar innocent individuals are there languishing in the prison system? Jeffries is put through a series of intimidatory interviews by police, without the evidence to back up any of the claims.
He has a competent lawyer, who helps ensure his release. But what of less resilient individuals, without such competent legal representation (more likely given the legal aid cuts) – throw in a media frenzy resembling some sort of Middle Ages style witch hunt - and where is justice?   
* The Lost honour of Christopher Jeffries - ITV- 9pm on 10 &11 December 2014

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Rome's rapid rebuttal

When Lord Patten takes up the chair of a Vatican committee to advise the Pope on media strategy, he may well be looking back home for models of excellence. One, some would argue, is Catholic Voices. 
Set up ahead of the papal visit of Benedict XVI to the UK in 2010, Catholic Voices is the brainchild of Austen Ivereigh, former public affairs director to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, and Jack Valero, press officer for the Catholic group Opus Dei. The seeds for Catholic Voices (CV) were sown in 2006, when Valero and Ivereigh put together the Da Vinci Code Response Group to respond to questions about the church arising from Dan Brown’s bestselling novel. 
Backed by the Catholic Union and enjoying charitable status, CV set out to train up 24 lay Catholics and one priest to represent the Church in the public square. In the event, the Pope’s visit passed off without a media hitch, perhaps because no scandal emerged on such issues as the church and child abuse.
The trip could thus be trumpeted as a great success. Never slow to celebrate achievement, CV says: “Our
appearances on over 100 programmes at that time made a big impression on bishops and broadcasters alike and we were encouraged to continue.”
Since then, CV has grown, training up more lay people to speak on behalf of the church. The CV academy holds regular meetings, which can be briefings, talks and debates. Ivereigh has written a book - "How to defend the faith without raising your voice" - about the development of the CV model. The has been replicated around the world, with 12 CV groups now operating in Europe, the Americas and Australia.
However, Lord Patten may well have questions for the group over its process of due diligence and some of its political leanings, for CV seems to divide Catholics. “The media’s response to Catholic Voices is an archetype of religious illiteracy: hook line and sinker they have swallowed the hard right line proffered by this well-funded fringe group whose primary focus is to defend positions and behaviours that most UK Catholics have rejected…They would be better called ‘neo-conservative Catholic voices,” said Francis Davis, columnist for the Catholic Times.
This is a group that seems at times to align itself with parties such as Ukip. Leading the way in this respect has been Ivereigh himself, who tweeted last year: "For first & probably last time, I have voted @UKIP in protest at parties' cynical collusion in overthrow by
state of conjugal marriage."
CV ran a campaign for “conjugal marriage” (and thus against gay marriage), with the writer Caroline Farrow, a columnist in the bestselling Catholic weekly the Universe, attracting criticism from more liberal figures after she questioned a call from the gay action group Stonewall to eradicate homophobia from schools, churches and homes: “It's difficult to know what that means in practice and certainly impinges upon Catholic principles of the parents as primary educators. How may homophobia, which is so frequently applied to Catholic teaching, be eradicated from schools, churches and homes and who will enforce it?" Farrow has become a regular in the media, with her weekly column and appearances on programmes such as BBC’s Question Time, where she defended conjugal marriage.
Those with doubts about CV ask how it vets its speakers, particularly after one tweeted the hope that the IRA might bomb an abortion clinic in Belfast and retweeted another tweet calling for “all fags to be exterminated”. 
Valero has explained the selection process: “We ask all applicants to fill in a questionnaire and submit it with their details. From these questionnaires we invite some to interview. The interviews are carried out by three or four people who ask about different areas: personality, articulacy, persuasiveness, awareness of
the news, their knowledge and experience of the church, and so on.
“We look at blogs and Twitter feeds for a general view, although it is not always possible to read everything they have written. From among those interviewed we choose the most appropriate, taking account also of trying to put together a balanced team in terms of range of ages, men and women, occupations, etc. During the actual training course we also have further tests for the trainees so that at the end we can decide whether to take them on. Nobody who does the training is automatically a Catholic Voice.”
Yet the hierarchy appears to have lined up behind the organisation. Cardinal George Pell, who will oversee Lord Patten in his new Vatican role, said: “Catholic Voices are really onto something that will grow and spread.”
Cardinal Vincent Nichols said: “CV is marked by a love of the church and a deeply rooted spirit…I think this effort to bring faith and reason together in the public forum is crucial for us.”
Interestingly though, the institutional church likes to keep its distance from CV, leaving it effectively in the deniability zone. CV are said not to speak for the church but to have “its blessing”. This enables the church to approve when CV proclaims in favour of -
say - conjugal marriage, but back away when there are more contentious outbursts.
This “deniability zone” may be narrowing, with Eileen Cole, the media co-ordinator at CV also working for the Catholic Communications Network, the official press operation of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales (BCEW). The BCEW is also a funder of CV.
Alexander des Forges, director of news at the BCEW and press secretary to Cardinal Nichols, tried to explain the relationship between the BCEW and CV. "While Catholic Voices is independent, it has the support and the blessing of the bishops. Experts from the Bishops’ Conference and bishops themselves have given briefings to Catholic Voices to explain the Catholic Church’s position across many areas of media interest; from schools to assisted suicide," said des Forges. "Catholic Voices have engaged with the media in an accessible way, communicating in ways that are normal and human. They are at the forefront of the move to encourage all Catholics to engage with the media and speak up about their faith."
Coming from the BBC, made up of competing media interests, Lord Patten will surely appreciate the dangers of a body like CV. The media will not always be prepared to play the deniability game, allowing the institutional church and its not so official spokespeople to waltz in and out of each others
company. The big test would be another child abuse scandal. If something happens that suggests the Catholic church has failed to meet its promise to put its house in order, then the media will want to know exactly who is speaking and on whose behalf.

* Published British Journalism Review - December 2014

Friday, 28 November 2014

Church must rethink its approach to world of work

The accusation has been made that the leadership of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is more at home in the boardroom than on the shop floor.  The accusers question that while Cardinal Vincent Nichols contributes to the CBI “great business debate”, citing his own “Blueprint for Business” initative – begun in 2012 – what is the equivalent on the workers side. There is certainly no one from the Bishops Conference of England and Wales addressing the Trade Union Congress, like the late Bishop John Jukes did for so many years.

It is important to remember that it is the workers who produce the profits with their labour, something repeatedly pointed out in Catholic Social Teaching since the ground breaking Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” (1891). The same encyclical made clear the disparity in power indices between worker and employer, requiring the existence of trade unions to balance up the situation. This inequality in the modern age was further developed by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Laborem Excercens – “On Human Work” (1981).

Today, Cardinal Nichols has identified some of the appalling working conditions that exist in this country.  “We know that working conditions exist today, in this city, which are not far from effective slavery, as well as the presence of extensive de facto slavery too. It is right to struggle against these outrageous conditions, just as it is right to seek to work with those who share a desire to develop a healthy ecology of enterprise in our society today,” said the Cardinal, delivering his homily at the mass to mark the 125th anniversary of the Great London Docks strike.  

He has also condemned the zero hours culture that has grown as more and more people are forced into insecure low paid work. “Zero hours contracts offer no reliable hours and therefore no guaranteed income. The practical virtues of planning expenditure, purchasing intelligently and avoiding debt really are difficult in a situation like that,” said Cardinal Nichols.

The Church has also majored on the living wage campaign, playing a leading role along with community organisers like Citizens UK and the trade unions in getting this standard adopted. Many Church organisations have adopted living wage criteria themselves.

The role of the Church in the living wage campaign certainly offers a beacon of good practice for how its relationship with business and labour could be developed. I recall sitting in an old church hall in the East End of London in 2005, with Sir John Bond, then the chair of HSBC, together with the then Bishop of Brentwood Thomas McMahon, representatives from community organisers London Citizens and a number of priests.

The debate went to and fro. HSBC were being asked to sign up to the living wage pledge, whereby they would ensure than no worker was paid less than the living wage for their labour. Sir John was not willing at the time to concede, quoting the amount that the bank gave to charity. However, the seed had been sown. A mixture of meetings and actions in HSBC branches by London Citizens led to the bank signing up as a living wage employer. This type of process was taken with a whole raft of employers, all of whom now form the basis of the growing living wage movement.

The Church in this context was playing a direct role campaigning for social justice with civil society organisations – including trade unions – as well as  providing witness by adopting the living wage in churches, schools and other institutions.

The living wage campaign had arisen from mainly Catholic members of London Citizens, who fed back that their low wages were destroying family life. The low wages of the likes of security guards and cleaners meant they were having to do more than one job to keep their families above the poverty line. This was not good for family life or the common good. The living wage campaign resulted, bringing beneficial results for workers and employers in the longer term.

 It would be good to see this kind of methodology being adopted in initiatives like the Blueprint for Business. The Blueprint seeks to get businesses to sign up to the five principles of honesty, good citizenship, having a purpose that delivers long term sustainable performance, being a responsible employer and guardianship for future generations. They are good aspirations but would most businesses not sign up to these?

Surely more measurable indicators would provide a greater test. So businesses could be required to commit to collective bargaining, trade union recognition, the living wage, closing wage gap between employers and workers, outlawing zero hours contracts and shorter working weeks. The companies should be required to pay their tax in this country. These criteria have resonance with the concept of the common good as defined in Catholic Social Teaching.

Acting CEO of Blueprint Charles Wookey has offered assurances that some exacting standards are being developed to ensure that participating companies are behaving ethically but there is some way to go.

However, the Church’s role in relation to the workplace goes way beyond Blueprint.  We should hear more from the Church about zero hours contracts culture, the growth of bogus self-employment, the growing number of part time workers (most of whom want full time work) and the growth in the number of people in work receiving benefits. None of these recent developments in the workplace are conducive to the common good and family life.

Perhaps it is time that the world of work committee or some equivalent within the Caritas Social Action Network were set up. This would provide a source of expertise for the bishops to draw upon and feel confident when they commented on the world of work.

There should also be moves made to develop a similar dialogue with trade union leaders to that which already exists with business leaders (via Blueprint and the CBI). It is one of the great ironies that so many of the leaders of the trade union movement in the UK received their formation as Catholics. These include TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, GS of PCS Mark Serwotka and GS of the Communication Workers Union Billy Hayes. The unions would welcome an approach from the Church if it were made in good faith, with an intent to treat the workers on an equal footing with employers.

So there is much to be done by the Church in the world of work. It is a critical area, in which most people spent huge amounts of their time. Work defines so many elements of life that it is simply not good enough for Church to ignore the terrain altogether or worse still just talk to one side.
*Article draws on presentation made at the Tablet Table of 20th November - debate with Charles Wookey, CEO of Blueprint and others

- Published - Independent Catholic News - 28/11/2014 

Government has selective hearing when it comes to intelligence service anti-terror counsel

Why is it that when the intelligence services ask for more anti-terrorism powers the politicians obey but when the same agencies warn that Britain’s involvement in foreign wars increases the terror threat at home they get completely ignored.

* Independent - 28/11/2014

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Not About Heroes

This excellent production of Stephen MacDonald’s “Not about Heroes” tracks the relationship between poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The two men first met at Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland in 1917.

Sassoon had been sent to the hospital to silence his criticisms of the war. A decorated officer he became increasingly critical of the war, which he believed was being deliberately prolonged.

Owen is just pleased to be able to meet his writing hero face to face. The story unfolds, as it becomes clear that the student will soon outstrip his master when it comes to the art of poetry.  

Ben Ashton gets the body language of Owen spot on, the nervousness in the presence of the master, then a growing confidence as the two men develop a mutual understanding and affection.

James Howard plays the more confident Sassoon with an air of Noel Coward about him. He goes through the full ambit of emotions from joy at the success of his friend to feelings of guilt as to whether he should have done more to prevent Owen returning to the front where he is killed a week before the Armistice.

Not about Heroes is a fascinating play that centres around the relationship between the two men born out of poetry and the war. Both have a growing revulsion at the pointless loss of life and communicate through their poetry.

Some verse forms part of the dialogue, most notably Owen’s Anthem for Youth, but not so much that the whole thing just becomes about the poetry. The play marks a flowering of creative youth being celebrated against the dark backdrop of bloody war.

Both Sassoon and Owen returned to the front from Craiglockhart, the former being shot in the head but surviving. Owen was not so fortunate but the body of poetry he left at the age of just 24 amounts to more than most achieve in several lifetimes. The messages of that poetry are as relevant to our world today as they were to the fields of France 100 years ago.

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