Thursday, 22 April 2010

Community organisers must beware political co-option

Community organising has become flavour of the month with political parties as they jostle for public goodwill before the election.
David Cameron was the most recent convert, promising that a future Conservative government would fund national centres for community organisers.
Prior to the Tories' conversion, former work and pensions secretary James Purnell announced he was to train as a community organiser when he stepped down from Parliament.
This presents the rather intriguing possibility of a new Conservative government paying for the retraining of a former Labour Cabinet minister.
Community organising is about bringing people together and empowering them to achieve change in their own lives through political activism. It began in the US, with Purnell describing Saul Alinsky as "the godfather of community organising." Its most famous son was President Barack Obama, who trained as an organiser.
This form of organising took root in Britain in the mid-'90s. The first organisation, the East London Communities Organisation (Telco), was set up in the East End of London in 1996.
It brought together different faith groups, schools, trade unions and other community-based bodies. The organisation has grown since the early days, setting up South London Citizens and West London Citizens, which together with Telco now form London Citizens.
There are 150 member organisations, many of which come together for the showpiece public assemblies. The last assembly at the Barbican in London drew in 2,000 people with plans to take community organising country-wide.
Telco's living wage campaign was British community organising's first big breakthrough. Members of London Citizens exposed how people working in low-paid sectors, such as cleaning and security, were having to do two or three jobs just to stay above the poverty line. Many worked in the twilight zone of the economy and were afraid to be associated with trade unions.
Funded by Unison, Telco commissioned research and came up with a living wage figure that amounted to what was required per hour to live above the poverty line. A successful campaign followed, involving direct meetings with public and private-sector companies.
There were also very public disruptive actions, such as members going into banks in the West End of London on a set day with lots of small change to bank.
The campaign won converts, with Barclays Bank and a number of NHS trusts and colleges taking on the living wage ordinance. Then London mayor Ken Livingstone embraced the idea, setting up a living wage unit in his office to set the rate each year.
Workers for the Greater London Authority were to be paid the living wage. Boris Johnson followed suit, most recently setting the rate at £7.60 an hour.
Another related campaign, known as Strangers into Citizens, aimed to provide regulation for undocumented workers, and was backed by sound research. Johnson also came on board as a supporter of some type of amnesty for undocumented workers.
So far, so good. There is a risk, however, that the goals of community organisers will be co-opted by mainstream political parties. Cameron's plans to create national centres for community organising and fund the training to be carried out by "independent third parties such as London Citizens" might be seen as an attempt at such co-option.
Leaders of London Citizens responded saying that they expected government to listen to the concerns of civil society just as it did those of business and the trade unions.
Those who are sceptical about community organising might surmise that London Citizens has more in common with the voluntarism agenda espoused by the Tories' Centre for Social Justice than with the demands of over six million trade unionists. That accusation feels unfair. The strength of community organising lies in its ability to bring together different groups who then seek to speak truth to power.
If there is a Tory government, one cannot simply refuse to converse with the new bosses. In broad coalition terms, however, what will public-sector trade union branches from the likes of Unison and PCS think of an organisation that they help fund having such close relations with a Conservative leader?
This critique will become more pressing if a Conservative government starts putting those trade union members out of work.
So far organisers at the heart of London Citizens have managed to unite a broad span of civil society to speak out on behalf of the poorest, without being politically co-opted by Westminster factions. It must be hoped that they continue to show such good judgement, so they can continue to deliver social justice for London's neediest citizens.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Immigration debate must take positive note

The subject of immigration looks set to be a major campaign issue in the general election campaign.All of the three main parties seem to be vying with each other as to which can keep the most people out of the country.
The Conservative Party favours quotas, with a seal on the number of migrants who can enter from outside the European Union (EU). Critics have highlighted the impractical nature of this policy for a business that opens or suddenly needs workers with certain skills. If the quota were full then that business could not fill its skills gap and could go to the wall. The Conservatives argue that there will be planning to cover such eventualities but the neo-liberal market which the party so strongly favours does not work that way - it is spontaneous and often unpredictable.The Labour Party favours its points system, only letting in workers with certain skills from beyond the EU. This again is not a favourite with business, which sees it as potentially putting obstacles in the way of it obtaining the requisite skills.
A great deal of recent migration has emanated from the mainly East European new accession countries. It has been the Poles Lithuanians and Slovakians who have made up much of recent migration, though this has lessened as the economy has taken a downturn. The Liberal Democrats favour dispersal of migrants to different parts of the country, with a points based regional policy. This also appears somewhat illogical given that migrants only go to areas where the work exists.
The Liberal Democrats are prepared to let asylum seekers work while in the country, something the other two parties oppose.The far right parties of UKIP and the British National Party further stoke the tenor of the debate on restricting immigration.

The immigration debate generally is a morass of misinformation. The lead off point for the debate should be that inward migration has been good for the economy over the years - it is a positive thing.All the different migrant groups coming into the UK over recent decades - including the Irish, the West Indians and Africans, the Asians and East Europeans - have contributed to the economic well being and cultural diversity of the country.
Economically Britain needs migrants. It is a rapidly ageing population, with the ratio between young and old rapidly changing. University of London academic David Blake found that there needs to be 500,000 immigrant workers coming to the UK to retain the pension at its present levels. The alternatives are higher pension contributions or working longer. The most recent net figure was 163,000 for 2008.
Neither do migrant workers come here to take benefits and jump the housing queue.

Migrants coming here to work do not qualify for benefits. The economy has massively benefited from the inflow of east European migrants recently as many have come to work for a short period, paid taxes and returned home. The majority are single people who have not received the public services that their taxes have gone to fund.
The most authoritative study Social Housing Allocation and Immigrant Communities from the Equality and Human Rights Commission last year found that around 2 per cent of those taking social housing had been in the country less than five years. Nine out of 10 people in this form of housing were born in the UK. Two thirds of those who arrived within the past five years live in private rented accommodation.

The migrants in private rented accommodation are often living in what was council housing before being sold off.

None of these facts effect the myths peddled in much of the right wing media about benefits and housing. These myths have also provided the fertile ground for the BNP and UKIP to exploit. So for example the BNP have been able to campaign in Barking and Dagenham about migrants taking housing and welfare. It turns community against community along race lines.

What is required over the election campaign is a proper open debate on immigration policies. Economic migration needs to be separated from those who come here seeking asylum having fled their home countries. What really does need to happen is to move away from this negative mindset that frames the immigration debate only in terms of reducing the number of people coming into the country. Immigration is in the main a positive thing for all concerned, not a threat to anyone’s way of life.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Travellers should not be used as a political football in the election

The news that London Mayor Boris Johnson has cut the provision for Gypsy and Traveller sites in the London Plan from 538 to 238 has been greeted with dismay in the travelling community.
In the original draft London Plan put out for consultation last October, the Mayor settled on the figure of 538 as a compromise between the 807 pitches sought by the travelling community and 238 figure put forward by the boroughs.
Clearly in this pre-election period the Mayor has now come down strongly on the side of the boroughs and settled community, where there are no doubt more potential votes than among travellers. However, the Mayor’s office have sought to spin the 50 per cent cut as a “minor” alteration.
“Such significant reductions from the original London Gypsy and Traveller Accomodation Needs Assessment (GTANA) guideline number of pitches will have an extremely negative impact on the Gypsy and Traveller communities accommodation, health and education needs," said a spokesperson for the Irish Traveller Movement.."The government and the Gypsy and Traveller community have both stated that the Mayor’s office should seek the original number of pitches recommended by GTAN."
Not to be outdone in the battle to be perceived as the “toughest” on travellers, John Denham, the Communities Secretary, put out guidance to local councils and police on how specifically to deal with anti-social behaviour from the Gypsy and Traveller Community. The guidance points to the use of anti-social behaviour orders (asbos), acceptable behaviour contracts and injunctions. The guidance specifies particular offending behaviours like fly-tipping, noise, straying livestock and untaxed vehicles. The minister has also urged local councils to use the government money available to provide authorised sites for the travelling community.
The Conservative Party has never been slow to use the travelling community as a political football in the past. Then Conservative leader Michael Howard brought up the subject in the last general election campaign of 2005. The approach amounts to exploiting a minority group or put another way playing to the irrational fear of the other so prevalent amongst many in the population. It panders to a need to for some to find a scapegoat for their own ills.
The Labour Government to its credit has attempted to get to grips with the question of lack of sites for the travelling community. Ever since the Caravans Act 1968 – placing an obligation on local authorities to provide sites - was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the travelling community has been in a state of perpetual motion being moved on from one authority to another. There was no incentive to provide sites. The guidance from government calling for land to be identified and sites constructed was a definite move forward, not that it has ever exactly been a political priority.
The latest offering in the form of the Conservative’s green paper on Gypsies and Travellers seeks to remove the provisions put in place, emphasising instead a public order approach, giving more powers to local authorities and the police to move the travelling community on. It is in reality a back to the future approach, returning to the mid 1990s position.
In a letter to the Conservative Communities spokesperson Caroline Spellman Lord Eric Avebury warns: “If this document is used by Conservatives in local or national election campaigns, it will provoke community tensions, as occurred at the last general election when negative Conservative policies, less extreme than the present green paper, aroused great concern among Gypsies and Travellers and an increase in racism in schools and the wider community.”
There are estimated to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers in the UK, As the Equality and Human Rights Commission has pointed out it would take one square mile of land across all of England to provide all Gypsy and Traveller families with sufficient authorised sites.
The reality of the travelling community reveals the most discriminated against group in the UK.
As well as shortage of accomodation, the community struggles to get proper health care.
In the area of mental health, self reported mental illness is 19 per cent compared to 9 per cent in the general population.
The travelling population has the highest level of maternal deaths among ethnic groups, with a miscarriage rate of 29 per cent compared to 16 per cent for the general population. Premature deaths of older offspring are 18 per cent compared to 1 per cent for the general population.

As a result of this discrimination the life expectancy of travellers is on average 10 years less than in the settled population. In Ireland, just 3 per cent of the travelling population live over 65.

There is discrimination suffered in the education system. The story of Irish Traveller Kathleen Stoke’s youngest son is instructive. All four of her children have been bullied at schools. Her youngest son fought back and was expelled. “When he went to another school, my second eldest advised him not to say that he was a traveller,” said Kathleen, who lives in Dagenham. “He hasn’t, so now he is just seen as being Irish and is not bullied.”

Irish Travellers are also over represented in the prison population. Traveller project manager for the Irish Chaplaincy Father Joe Browne recently revealed how 50 per cent of 1,000 Irish prisoners held in British jails come from the travelling community. Travellers are often remanded into custody rather than given bail because the authories do not recognise the address provided. The lack of literacy among many travellers makes life in the form bound life of prison very difficult. The prison authories often block compassionate leave for travellers for events like funerals, claiming that they are likely to escape. The Irish Chaplaincy now has the funding for a one year project to look more deeply into the discrimination against travellers within the criminal justice system.
All of these areas show the travelling community being openly discriminated against. Irish Travellers lets not forget are part of the Irish community. Discrimination against travellers should be confronted and the policy to provide sites vigorously pursued. Parties that seek to use this already marginalised group as a poltical football certainly do not deserve the Irish vote come election day

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Pope's letter should be first step in process of reconciliation

A few years ago at a Catholic parish in east London they built an impressive new pastoral centre.
Various parts of the building were dedicated to former parish priests
The hall was named after one parish priest and a stained glass window after another.
All of these priests were and remain revered men. It came as a surprise then when I spoke to a friend who as an eight year old in the 1950s was beaten by the parish priest at that time. In fact on one occasion he went home and showed his mother the rings on his back from the latest beating. She went up to the Church and punched the priest concerned. Nothing ever happened about the attack. Strange then that now to find the biggest part of the new centre, the hall, is named after that same priest.
He is now long dead but his reputation is that of a good god fearing man. There must be many similar cases that remain undiscovered. Priests were held with great reverence, nowhere more so than in countries like Ireland, where Church and State were virtually intertwined.
The Pope's recent letter to people in Ireland is the most fulsome apology offered so far. He adopted a humble approach in addressing the various different parts of the Catholic community: victims and their families, abusers, parents, the young people of the country, priests, bishops and the faithful generally. He could have gone further, for example publicly supporting Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin who has adopted a truly moral line on abuse and paid the price. He is been reported to have been ostracised by many priests and abused by others.
The letter is a start but it should then lead to a much wider root and branch process. The worry is that in addressing this letter so directly at Ireland it is almost trying to cast abuse as an Irish problem. Ireland had distinct circumstances so needs a unique remedy.
Abuse in Ireland is particularly bad but it is only symptomatic of something that appears to be happening across the universal church. The reports of abuse from Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Mexico and Brazil prove that this is an institutional problem, not an Irish one.
Nowhere it seems will the institution come to grips with what has been done to its children. This maybe because it is becoming increasingly clear that many of the most senior church men of today, like Cardinal Sean Brady, were covering up in the past when this practice was going on.
In England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor was hit early during is time as Archbishop of Westminster in a child abuse scandal that went back to his days as Bishop of Arundel and Brighton. There he had overseen the movement of paedophile priest Michael Hill to the post of chaplain at Gatwick airport. 12 years later Hill was jailed for five years for 10 assaults on children.
Then there is the role of the Pope himself, who was Bishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich between 1977 and 1981.During this time he approved the transfer to his archdiocese of Peter Hullermann, a priest who is accused of abusing boys, on condition that Hullermann undergoes weekly therapy. Unknown to the future Pope, Hullermann was assigned to a parish and eventually given a suspended prison sentence for sexually abusing children. Later Cardinal Ratzinger went on to become the enforcer as Prefect for the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith for Pope John Paul II. In this role he issued a directive urging bishops to keep accusations confidential.
The situation with the Catholic Church has parallels with that of police officers caught up in the miscarriages of justice. Many were intricately involved in the original flawed investigations, only to have risen to senior rank at the time these were revealed in the courts. It was too much to expect such officers to resign or admit complicity, instead an elaborate damage limitation operation was mounted that enabled them to keep their careers and pensions. The victims of the miscarriages of justice though did not see justice done. The same type of thing could be unveiling itself in the Catholic Church.
What is really needed is a truth commission type process across countries to look into the abuse claims past and present. This would have to include some independent component, not mendacious but parties who could be truly objective.
Prosecutions should follow in some cases but in others where the person is dead for instance just the revelation would help some people move on.. Those who have covered up must at the very least step down from office. Compensation must be paid.
There also needs to be a serious look taken at the nature of ministry. The limited qualification to become a priest, namely being a celibate male needs to change. The structures that have allowed abuse to flourish must change. It is not good enough to expect an apology and some reparation to be sufficient – things cannot continue as before. The Church must be democratised and made accountable to its own faithful.
The voice of Catholics must also be heard. There has been a lot in the media, particularly in Britain, from secularists who already have an agenda against the Church. For them the abuse scandal is just another chance to have a go. Yet is Catholics in the main make up the abused. They have been lied to and today continue to fund the compensation payouts for paedophilia through the weekly collections.
It will only be a comprehensive process such as a truth commission followed by radical change in the structures of the Church that can save it. To continue with a damage limitation exercise that seeks to patch up an institutionally failed organisation will only hasten its demise and cause more suffering in the process.