Wednesday, 29 September 2010

What is the point of the Labour Party?

The questioning of Ed Miliband's victory in the Labour leadership election because the trade unions supported him really does beggar belief. The Labour Party was set up by the trade unions to represent working people, why on earth should they not have a say in who leads the party? The fact the Labour Party has so often failed to serve the interests of working people whilst being bankrolled by the unions is the greater charge. It seems ironic that just as with Tony Blair, his predecessor, Ed having secured union support is now already seeking to distance himself from those who founded and fund the party. What would be more heartening would to see a Labour leader who embraces the unions rationale, opposing the cuts agenda aimed at making the most weak and vulnerable in society pay for the largesse and irresponsibility of the bankers

Friday, 24 September 2010

Travelling community comes under pressure in Europe

Once again it would seem anti-traveller sentiment is gathering momentum across Europe, with President Nicolas Sarkozy leading the way with his deportation of the Roma to Romania and Bulgaria.
The President has moved to dismantle 300 illegal camps and squats, claiming they are "sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime".
A recently a leaked memo from the French interior ministry indicated there may have been deliberate targeting of the Roma in contravention of the French constitution and international law.
Some 5,000 Roma (gypsies) have so far been deported this year back to Romania and Bulgaria.
The French government reaction came after violence flared in July between police and Roma in the Loire Valley town of Saint Aignan.
There has been shock amongst many of the population in France and internationally at the severe actions taken by the President, though support from others. Some 100,000 people recently rallied against the policy.
Internationally, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has also warned France of the possibility that infringement proceedings for discriminatory application of the Free Movement Directive may be launched. "I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority. This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War." said Ms Reding.
There have though also been robust actions taken in Italy to demolish travelling community camps.
Hostility to the travelling community in Britain and Ireland has been more muted. The most open hostility came last year when 115 Romanian Roma were driven from Belfast.
Yvonne McNamara, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, likens the upcoming eviction of Britain’s biggest camp, Dale Farm in Essex to actions taken in other parts of Europe. “No provision has been put in place for the families being evicted from the area,” said Ms McNamara.
Roma and Irish Travellers are protected by the Race Relations Act 1976 in Britain, yet this does not stop discrimination of an open and institutional nature being widely practiced against this minority. In its worst form, this resulted in the murder of 15-year old Irish Traveller boy Johnny Delaney in Ellesmere Port in 2003.
Traveller children regularly experience discrimination at school with the ITM reporting nine out of ten children experiencing racial abuse, while nearly a third have been bullied or physically attacked.
The story of Irish Traveller Kathleen Stoke’s youngest son is instructive. All four of her children were bullied at school. 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.”
Chester based GP, Joseph O’Neill has told of the worst health conditions that exist among the travelling community with asthma, bronchitis and chest pain all more commonplace. In the area of mental health, self reported mental illness was 19 per cent compared to nine per cent in the general population. The travelling community has the highest level of maternal deaths among ethnic minority groups, with a miscarriage rate of 29 per cent compared to 16 per cent for the general population.
The worse health conditions no doubt contribute to a life expectancy that is 10 years less than for the settled population.
The major touchstone subject that causes most animosity regarding the travelling community in Britain is lack of site provision.
The level of opposition to traveller encampments struck home recently when nine acres of agricultural land in Essex was bought by 16 local householders for £180,000. Agricultural land costs on average around £5,000 an acre, so in this case the locals were so concerned about the possibility of travellers moving in that they paid four times the going rate to stop that eventuality. The Essex example is not unique.
The vociferous opposition to travellers moving into an area, no doubt has much to do with the hysteria whipped up in the media. The image of people who create a mess wherever they go and commit crime does not make them popular.
The reality is usually somewhat different. It is ironic that the very qualities that the most vitriolic newspapers like the Daily Mail and Daily Express claim to uphold are most prevalent in the travelling community. Most gypsies and travellers marry at a young age. They have stable relationships, with teenage pregnancy outside marriage is rare. Family life is sacrosanct.
That said maybe the travelling community and their advocates need to do more to break down some of the negative stereotypes that cause such blatant racial hostility.
One aspect that seems to cause particular resentment is the creation of unauthorised sites on land owned by travellers. This involves a piece of land being bought ostensibly to keep horses. Electricity and water supplies come in for the animals. Then overnight caravans move in. Application is made for retrospective planning permission and a site has been created. As evidenced in a recent Parliamentary debate, this type of development is creating real friction between the travelling and settled communities across the country.
The travelling community ofcourse claim this only happens due to lack of site provision.
The lack of provision has been contentuous ever since 1994 when the Conservative Government repealed the Caravans Act 1968 which put a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide sites. As a result, travellers was put into a state of perpetual motion, continually being moved on from one place to another.
The last Labour Government did move to address the issue, pushing local authorities to identify areas under the regional spatial strategy that could be used for sites. The government then provided a fund to develop the sites.
The Coalition Government has done away with this strategy, returning in main to the public order approach. The one sop is offering some financial incentives to local authorities to provide sites There is a clear hostility across Europe to the travelling community, often born out of ignorance. Developments in France and elsewhere indicate a further step backwards toward intolerance toward this much maligned minority.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Rights of the elderly need defending

The sign of a civilised society should be how it treats its old people. If this maxim is accepted then the increasingly ugly inter-generational tension that seems to be building in the UK does not augur well for the future.As the baby boomer generation reaches pensionable age, there is a growing public discourse that seems to pitch the old against the young. Put simply the charge is that the baby boomer generation (born 1945 to 1965) had all the benefits - they grew up with the health service, have homes, received welfare and a free education - with those who wanted to go onto higher education receiving grants for the purpose.
Now, they receive a state pension, fuel allowances, free travel passes and other benefits. The debate continues that the young are resentful of all this. They increasingly charge the baby boomers with destroying the planet, contributing to the national debt and having the best of all worlds. The younger generations claim they will be lucky to ever own their home outright, have huge loans to service if they want to go onto higher education and job prospects are not good. Life will also be different in a world dogged by climate change. All of this and they also have to pay for the upkeep of the elderly.There is a quite rabid debate developing. It gives no credit to the massive contribution made by the elderly to society. The taxes paid over the years. The free childcare provided courtesy of many elderly people for their grandchildren. The massive amount of voluntary work done. At the worst end of this debate, some seem to be suggesting that elderly people should even pay some sort of super tax for being old. This type of development really would destroy any notion of the society in which we live being civilised.Some facts about the elderly population could prove helpful at this juncture. In 2009, there were 12 million pensioners living in the UK, 7.5 million women and 4.5 million men. This represents 19 per cent of the total population. By 2050, the number of people of state pensionable age is forecast to be 16 million, which will represent 21 per cent of the population.Average life expectancy in England stands at 77.7 years for men and 81.8 years for women. There are though wide differentials according to where a person lives. So a man in Blackpool will live on average to 73.2 years compared to his counterpart in Kensington and Chelsea, who lives on average 10.5 years more. Some 2.5m pensioners are living below the official poverty line in 2007/8 defined as 60 per cent median population income (equivalent to £158 a week before housing costs). Some 61 per cent of pensioner couples struggle by on £15,000 or less. 45 per cent of single pensioners have an income of £10,000 or less. The state pension is £95.25 a week.Some 3.5 million older people live alone. One in five over 80s suffer with dementia, with this ratio closing to one in three for over 90s.These statistics give a snapshot of what it is like to be old in Britain today.
The lack of sympathy for the elderly population is reflected in recent moves to increase the pensionable age from 65 to 68 over the coming years. This is justified on the basis of people living longer and society not being able to afford the cost. There is also the growing concern over the closing ratio of pensioners to those in work, with the figures moving toward 2:1. Recently, for the first time the number of people over 65 exceeded those under 16. The cost issue is largely a misnomer. The National Pension Fund which takes in money contributed via natioanl insurance to provide for the state pension is £52 billion in surplas. This figure is set to rise to over £100 billion in the coming years. The increase was helped by the change in 1980 linking pension rises to the prices as opposed to the earning index. This is soon to change back but according to the National Pensioners Convention (NPC) had the link not changed the state pension today would be £158.60 not £95.25.So overall, it can hardly be said that elderly people have an easy life. Fortunately, many are increasingly finding a collective voice through organisations like the NPC. Grey power has for many years played a significant role in the political scene in America but in Britain the response has been more muted.
As the attacks continue though, from extending the retirement age to cutting pensions and benefits, grey power here has the potential to be a very potent political force, with pensioners representing 19 per cent of the population. What is more, they are far more likely to vote than other younger groups. It is time that the pensioners voice was heard louder and more clearly. The way forward though is for young and old to join together in solidarity, because the one certainty in life is that one day most of us will grow old.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Untold side of Catholicism

Many Catholics have wondered in the weeks running up to the Pope's visit whether they live in a foreign land. The negative tone in much of the media, seeking to put all Catholics under one easy to fit label as at best strange and worst deranged has caused much discomfort.
The constant highlighting of the cost of the state visit - Catholics do pay taxes too by the way - has been blown up out of all proportion. There are millions of Catholics who do contribute quite a lot to the welfare of this society.
Take the case of Kerry Norridge who will speak at the vigil in Hyde Park with the Pope. Brought up in a stable family in Oxford, he fell into the drug culture during his teenage years and was a heroine addict by the age of 20.
Kerry cut off from his family and did various jobs, like selling the Big Issue, just to pay for the drugs. “I was running away, never dealing with> the issue. It got dark and lonely and I felt very isolated,” said Kerry.
A fellow hostel dweller encouraged him to go to Narcotics Anonymous and it was from there that the long road to recovery began.
Following rehabilitation he went to the Cardinal Hume Centre (CHC), where he stayed in one of the hostels and got help with employment and life skills. “This was a fantastic move for me, they are positively focused at getting people into a meaningful life,” said Kerry, who is now living independently in a flat in north London and doing a drama course to become an actor.
It is this type of work done by the CHC that is the kind of Catholic social action that the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens never mention when attacking the Church.
The work that goes on quietely in the back streets, based on the Benedictine ethos that all are welcome and no one will be judged. The CHC give their help unconditionally so as to get people back on their feet and back into mainstream society.
As well as homeless hostels the centre has an employment team, family centre, immigration advice service, English classes and adult education.
There are many Catholic orientated organisations doing the work of social justice across Britain. In the area of homelessness there is Housing Justice and the De Paul Trust.
Both work with the homeless and advocate for this group of vulnerable people. Alison Gelder, chief executive at Housing Justice, and Cathy Corcoran, her counterpart at the CHC, both warned recently of the level of suffering that will be caused by the Coalition Government’s plans to cut housing benefit.
The De Paul Trust is also involved in work with prisoners, where the Prison Advice and Care Trust (PACT) also fulfil an important advocacy role.
PACT have developed a mentoring system that helps prisoners to have a better chance of not re-offending when they get out of prison. The support of family and friends has proved crucial in keeping prisoners away from crime once released.
Overseas there is the work of CAFOD and Progressio. CAFOD has become one of the most effective humanitarian agencies in the land, responding quickly to disasters like the Pakistan floods and Tsunami in South East Asia. The success of CAFOD comes from its ability to plug in directly to the generosity of the Catholic community, with most of its funding coming from that source.
CAFOD also run excellent projects across the world giving people and communities the chance to live dignified lives. Many of these projects> follow a similar ethos to CHC, only in an overseas context.
Progressio has been a visionery organisation over the years, often reading the signs of the times well ahead of others, who boast far greater resources. Most recently this has involved pointing out the injustices of some of the actions taken by big corporations seeking to get control of seed> stocks and the food chain via GM production.
Then there are the faith schools. Whilst fundamentalist secularists campaign> against these institutions many non-believers in the real world clamour to get their children in due to the ethos and good academic records.
These are just a few examples of the Catholic Church engaged and involved in a very practical way at home and abroad. It is a massive contribution to the> welfare of society. It is important that this work is recognised and not lost amid the desire of some fundamentalist secularists to portray the Church as sex obsessed and irrelevant

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Why are people not more angry with the bankers?

The question that occurs as the Coalition Government announces one cut after another is why are people not more angry about the bankers?It was afterall they who largely created the deficit in the first place. The taxpayer was forced to step in to bail out the bankers or see the whole system crash. The consequences were thought too dire to apprehend: cash machines no longer giving out money, businesses unable to access credit and quite rapidly the whole system declining into anarchy. The banks had to be saved, which the Labour Government of the day did by effectively nationalising a number of them.It was from this point that the problems started. The government should have taken effective control of the banks and how they operate. Instead, it allowed management teams in the banks to pretty much continue as before. The system was fixed so that not even the banks could fail to restore their institutions to profit. Interest rates were cut but the banks were not forced to pass the cuts on to morgage holders. What they did was partially pass on the cuts to borrowers while handing them on in full to savers. Instead of making credit available to struggling businesses they shut up shop. Meanwhile, as bank balance sheets started to be restored they continued with business as usual regarding the payment of high salaries and huge bonuses to themselves.Why did the government not insist on the banks that it owned opened up credit lines to business? Why were savers, many of whom include the elderly, so savagely hit? The banks should have been made instruments of social justice, operating for the common good. Instead, they have been effectively bailed out by the taxpayer and then continued with business as usual. Losses have been effectively nationalised, while profits continue to be privatised at the behest of the market.The Coaliton Government, with its cuts agenda, has creatred a process, whereby the poorer members of society are being made to pay for the largesse of the rich.The Coaliton Government together with many complient voices in the media has done its best to blame the deficit on the past government. It was the profligacy of Labour that caused this crisis, so the story goes. This is a less than subtle PR line designed no doubt to soften the blow of making the mass of people pay for the avarice of the rich. It is much easier to sell a line that blames the last government rather than the bankers. If the bankers were blaimed all of the time then there might be a lot more anger around and less acceptance that everyone else should pay for the behaviour of this small group of irresponsible individuals.This is not ofcourse to say that the last government was blameless. The weakening of the regulatory framework by splitting the task between the Bank of England, Treasury and Financial Services Authority made the crisis far more likely to happen. Had Prime Minister Gordon Brown not been quite so enthralled with City bankers in suits then much of the damage could no doubt have been avoided.What the banking crisis should teach is just how close society now resides to the precipice. Anarchy was not far away in the autumn of 2008, as the banks threatened to crash on mass. There needs to be a step back taken to look at how our society is organised and in the interests of whom. An examination of Catholic Social Teaching could well provide a way forward. CST emphasises the need to work for the Common Good. The Church teaches that people are here to adminster wealth on behalf of the mass of people, not monopolise it on behalf of a small group of the priveliged. There needs to be some responsibility exercised in plotting the way forward. If this path of action is not taken there is every chance that next time the banks or some similar key institutions crashes there will be no second chance. There will be anarchy on the streets and the law of the jungle will reign to the detriment of all. There needs to be fundamental change now, not simply putting the wheels back on a vehicle that is already broken.