Friday, 29 October 2010

Welfare for big business is the real benefit scandal

The real scandal over housing benefit is i) the rip off rates that private landlords have been able to charge and ii) its use as welfare assistance for tax avoiding companies. The real scandal that the Coalition Government should focus on is the large companies who operate in this country, use the facilities and pay poverty wages to their staff. The low pay then results in the tax payer having to make up the difference through welfare like housing benefit. This is effectively a welfare subsidy from the tax payer to big business. The icing on the cake comes with the news that many of these same businesses then employ tax avoidance practices in order to not have to pay tax in this country. This is the real welfare scandal not the poor people on housing benefit

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Capitalism doesn't make people happy

A recent poll looking at what makes people happy came up with some interesting findings.Top of the list in the happiness stakes with a 97 per cent rating was spending time with friends and family. Next came an interesting job with 92 per cent, then being in a relationship, 85 per cent, and hobbies and sport, 80 per cent. Seventh in the ten criteria with 64 per cent was having a high income. This last finding was particularly relevant in the consumer driven world in which we live which often via the media and advertising world emphasises material wealth above all else. The poll accompanied the publication of a report from three charities CAFOD, Tearfund and Theos, titled Wholly Living: a new perspective on international development that focuses on the idea of human flourishing.This critiques the present neo liberal economic model which advocates the pursuit of growth at any cost.The failure of this model, according to the report, sees millions in the developing world suffer due to poverty, sickness and powerlessness, while in the developed world similar dissatisfaction comes from job insecurity, overwork, consumerism, anti-social behaviour and family dislocation. "In the UK as economic growth has risen, well being has flat-lined, social capital has declined and inequality has increased," said Chris Bain, the director of CAFOD.The amazing thing is that none of this is particularly new. Back in 1968 during his 82 day bid to win the Democratic Presidential nomination, Robert Kennedy questioned the wisdom of evaluating everything in terms of the value of Gross Domestic Product. Socially the 1960s and 70s were far more progressive in many ways.During the 1970s there was the talk of the 25 hour week and people retiring when they reached 50. It was felt automation of processes would result in far more free time for people to spend on leisure or educational pursuits. This was remember before anyone had even thought of the internet. It was an exciting prospect but clearly a frightening one for those with their hands on the levers of power. Then came the rise of the neo-liberals to positions of power around the world, most notably with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in the US and Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in Britain. From that point any dream of early retirement or more leisure time receded. Instead, the power of organised labour was weakened, restrictive employment laws implemented and the Murdoch led media became a propaganda tool of government. In short, people were forced to work longer hours for less pay, resulting in greater profits for the few and a growing inequality in society.Little changed over the years of a Labour Government that signed up totally to the neo-liberal creed. This was particularly evidenced in Europe where the business lobby pushed the British Government to obstruct wherever possible any socially progressive legislation. This saw attempts to restrict the length of the working week, the blocking of full employment rights for agency workers and most recently opposition to the extension of materinity leave entitlements.This backwards attitude has seen right wing media commentators scoff at the French because they come out and protest when their government seeks to make everyone else pay for bankers largesse. They also object to seeing the pensionable age rise over 62.Similar actions by government in Britain have not thus far brought forward anything like the same oppositional protest. The report also focuses on the need for "a new democratic global green economy with human and environmental sustainability at its heart." The environment has to be factored into any future economic model and human flourishing. To date successive governments have treated sustainable development as a luxurious add on, easily disposed with at time of economic difficulty. This timely report should form part of the debate as to how the world is ordered in the future. It is high time that there was a more even distribution of the world's wealth. The poll proves that not everyone is obsessed with material wealth, many want community. The report suggests a Prime Minsterial commission to take these ideas forward, it would be a good way to start a process that could help us all rediscover some of our own humanity

Progressio's plight

The news of the precarious situation that the humanitarian agency Progressio now finds itself in with the government cutting funding must be a source of regret for all Catholics.
It faces a potential shortfall in funding threatening 15 jobs in the organisation at home and abroad.
Progressio has a proud record stretching back over 70 years to its founding in the 1940s by Cardinal Hinsley.
Originally called the Sword of the Spirit, it was renamed the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) in 1965 before its most recent metamorphosis into Progressio four years ago.
A major strength of the organisation has been its ability over the years to read the signs of the times. It provided aid via sending out skilled workers overseas but also developed an education and advocacy role at home. The latter function brought international injustices to the attention of politicians, opinion formers and media.
The development of the education and advocacy role, under the leadership of Mildred Nevile, saw the organisation again well ahead of its time, doing something that would later be copied and effectively taken over by the big agencies like Oxfam, Christian Aid and CAFOD.
Attending the then CIIR conferences in the 1980s and 1990s there was a feeling that they really had their finger on the pulse of coming developments. It was the place to be if you wanted to be ahead of the game.
One notable initiative saw renowned US political thinker Noam Chomsky invited to address a conference in the early 1990s.
There were also important initiatives on the drugs trade and the importance of trade unions as central structures in building community. It was borrowing from the south to inform the north.
Important relationships were built with those in struggle across the world from Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to the ANC in South Africa. CIIR had strong links with those involved in liberation theologians like Gustavo Guttierez, Jon Sobrino and Albert Nolan.
In the latter 1990s, the organisation did seem to start losing its way, getting bogged down in managerialism and seemingly non-plused by the spirit of the new Labour government.
Inward looking structural reorganisations took up too much time and emotional energy. The organisation also came to rely more heavily on government funding.
At the close of the century there was the problem of the changing role of the organisation, with the big agencies increasingly doing their own advocacy and education work and the link with the Church growing ever more tenuous.

Things though have steadily improved over the past decade under the leadership of Christine Allen. Progressio, as it then became called, seemed to rediscover the ability to read the signs of the times. It began speaking out on controversial issues like the use of condoms in Africa. It saw the crucial nature of the environmental argument and started to take a lead on some of the more controversial aspects like the need to stop terminator gene technology.
One of the pleasing things about Progressio is that it practices what it preaches. The latest annual report indicated that it had cut its carbon footprint by 25 per cent as a result of reducing flying and other measures. So it is walking the walk as well as talking the talk.
It has also moved to restore links with the Church, with its campaigns officer focusing on this work.
Progressio has ofcourse been mistaken over the years to allow its dependency on funding grow to the 60 per cent level it now finds itself. Relying on government funding in such a way is always precarious and also opens the organisation up to accusations of co-option. The non-governmental label gets tainted.
It must though be hoped that the present crisis is but a wake up call regarding matters such as funding. Progressio does seem to be heading in the direction, importantly regaining much of its prophetic role. What must also be hoped is that the Church reacts with generosity to its present perceived plight. For many years now Progressio has been the poor relation to CAFOD, particularly in terms of the funding it receives from the Church – an almost exclusive CAFOD preserve. There does though have to be room in the Church’s remit for two such vital organisations reaching out across the world. It must be hoped that the Catholic in the pew and their representatives in the hierarchy realise what an important organisation they have in Progressio and react with the requisite generosity in order that it can continue doing its vital work.

Combatting climate change demands immediate action

There is a worrying indication that the need to combat climate change is becoming the latest victim of the Coalition Government's cuts agenda.
Prime Minister David Cameron has boasted that this will be the greenest government ever but the reality as opposed to the rhetoric tells a somewhat different tale. Two recent examples illustrate the point. First, the decision to provide very limited funding to the new Green Bank, to fund sustainable technology initiatives. The £1 billion provided, contrasts to the £6 billion originally suggested - a real drop in the ocean compared to the hundreds of billions spent on bailing out the banking system. The second example concerns the decision to remove caps on rail fares thereby enabling them to rise inexorably. This will have the effect of driving people back onto the roads, so increasing carbon emissions. A possible answer if the Coalition government wants to cut the transport budget with regard to rail is to reduce the amount that the private train operating companies are taking to reward their shareholders, better still take the railway fully back into public ownership. The depressing fact that such actions portray is that the penny has clearly not dropped with this government that climate change is real and the time to combat it limited. It is difficult not to think that the disproportionately large media play given to the little band of climate skeptics has done much damage in this respect. The incident concerning the East Anglia emails furore did much damage to the climate change argument. They suggested a disingenuous attitude to the subject. There seems to have been little attention drawn to the timing of this story coming as it did immediately before the UN summit on climate change in Copehagen last December. The overall effect has been to create the impression that climate change is a subject still up for debate – the contention being it may be true, it may not. This portrayal of a debate resulted in more people doubting the existence of climate change. This is a futile argument, there is no doubt about the existence of global warming. First there are the authoritative and voluminous reports of the likes of Sir Nicholas Stern for the last government and the UN climate change panel. Second, the experience of nature around us. In London, there is the example of rising water levels with the River Thames. The Thames Barrier put up in the early 1980s to stop London flooding was pulled up 10 times in its first 10 years of existence. Over the past 10 years it has been raised more than 64 times.It is high time that the Church in this country spoke out more loudly on the need to combat climate change. The leadership of the Church in England, Wales and Scotland should take a lesson from the Pope, who has not only spoken out regularly on the need to act but also moved to make the Vatican State carbon neutral. This has included fitting 2,500 solar panels to the roofs.The hierarchy in this country should act in similar vein pointing out that addressing climate change is not an either or for government. The churches and schools should also be practicing what they preach, moving far more quickly to a zero carbon existence. Carbon neutral technologies like solar panels need to be fitted to all Church buildings.Combating climate change must be the highest priority and factored into any economic decision making. As agencies like CAFOD have warned the increasing rate of climate change is having an incredible impoverishing effect throughout the world.This is another area where the Church needs to be heard. The Church in this country has not made enough of a preferential option for the poor when it comes to the cuts agenda. Standing with the poor should mean articulating the need for budgetary savings to fall far more heavily in terms of taxes on the rich rather than cuts being made to public services. There is a nagging feeling that some Church leaders seem to be colluding in this "we're all in it together" rhetoric that says everyone has to suffer. Let's not forget who caused this crisis - the bankers - so they should be paying a proportionately higher amount of the costs. This is the type of moral leadership we need from the Church, not being afraid to be unpopular but having the courage to speak out on the needs for economic, environmental and social justice.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Why the one sided take on cuts agenda?

The way in which the cuts agenda has been covered in much of the media, exposes just how supine most outlets have become to parroting official truths. Once again as with past narratives the raisen d'etre for the central theme, namely that everyone must feel the pain has been accepted without question. As a result most have colluded in this crude piece of propaganda that amounts to making the weakest and most vulnerable pay for the avarice and irresponsibiliy of the bankers. The occasional voice that has sounded calling for social justice in the form of far more of the burden for the deficit falling on the rich through higher taxes, have been shouted down immediately. When will journalists start to do the job they have been trained for, namely, to report and hold to account decison makers, not act as a wing of the PR industry, simply parroting official truths.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Time to start taking dementia seriously

The growing problem of dementia in society was once again highlighted by a report from Kings College London that found 35 million sufferers worldwide costing £380 billion in social care
This amounts to 1 per cent of GDP worldwide or equivalent to the 18th largest country in the world.
The report commissioned by Alzheimers Disease International predicted that the number of sufferers would grow to 66 million in the next 20 years and up to 115 million by 2050.
In Britain there are 820,000 people who have dementia, around half of these suffer with Alzheimers. This figure is expected to double by 2050.
The dementia business seems dominated by statistics, what though must never be lost sight of is the terrible suffering it causes.
Our family had to deal with dementia when my Dad became a sufferer.
He steadily grew worse over the years. It must be frightening to deal with as the disease takes over your life. Reading Dad’s diaries after he died, it was apparent how his thought processes were breaking down as detailed chronicling of each day declined to where it was one or two points and then nothing. One particularly sad entry, showed a desperate loneliness as he revealed it was getting difficult to remember things he’d done that morning.
It is the process of seeing your loved one transform into someone who cannot remember your name that can be so debilitating for all concerned.
Dementia and the care needed with the illness is something that is fortunately beginning to gain more attention. In our case, there was little help for many years.
When the bean counters are throwing the numbers around, there should be a little more focus on some of the damage being done to those unpaid carers, on whom the burden often falls.
In our case that was mainly my mother, who for 18 months, prior to Dad going into a home was the main carer. She was 80 years old at the time, in need of care herself if anything, not dealing 24 hours a day with a husband in the advanced stages of dementia.
Dad was always a strong willed person, in control. This was a positive thing for most of his life but once dementia hit, this type of drive became negative. He would try to climb out of windows in the middle of the night. If he got out he would wander round the town.
That 18 months of caring for my Dad took its toll on Mum. The stress no doubt contributed to her loss of eyesight, hearing and other ailments.
And it is people like my Mum who end up bearing the burden of the dementia time bomb. Government does not want to pay for the condition. There is a period with dementia where you are virtually left in limbo. For us it was during that period when my mother was in the main caring for Dad.
While you don’t want the health service taking on big brother powers to take away loved ones, sometimes people need help. The system is too willing to let individuals go through their own private hell as they struggle to provide the care required.
Dad finally went into a home in October 2005, the first of three before he died in August 2008.
Homes though are another world that the dementia sufferer and carers have to endure. The whole sector has pretty much been farmed out to the private sector. There is a lack of regulation in an area that patently needs regulating. Dementia sufferers are in many cases as vulnerable as babies. The scope for abuse is immense, as was evidenced last year by a government report that found homes over using drugs to sedate dementia patients. Otherwise known as “the chemical cosh.” Government has moved to provide specialist training and more regulation but the danger of abuse remains constant.
The worry is that those who own the homes see them in the main as profit centres. The staff are often on low wages, for a job that if being done properly requires a high level of expertise.
A good home will seek to stimulate the dementia sufferers. They will be kept in a safe and caring environment. The worst homes are really warehouses of dementia sufferers waiting for death.
Dementia has gained a greater profile over recent years. This is no doubt due to a number of factors, first the growing number of sufferers and subsequent impact on those involved in caring and other duties.
Around 25 million people, or 42 per cent of the population, are affected by dementia through knowing a close friend or family member with the condition.
Second, in our celebrity dominated world, the instances of the famous like Cliff Richard, Fiona Philipps and John Suchet having relatives effected has led to greater publicity.
So there has been improvement in terms of the growing public awareness of the condition. There is still though much that needs to be done. The level of funding for research to find an answer to the disease is lamentably low compared to other conditions like cancer and heart disease. While cancer attracts £600 million a year in research funding, dementia gets just £50 million.
The attitude among medical practitioners to dementia needs to change. A doctor on a documentary presented by Fiona Philipps commented that you would not send a cancer patient away and say come back when the conditions worsens, which is what happens with many dementia cases.
There have been breakthroughs like the rember drug but there is the question of the cost and availability.There also needs to be a real focus on care. It should not be left to the relatives of the dementia sufferer to pick up the care duties unaided. There should be more help in the home and proper regulation of care homes. All of these matters need to be addressed in order that our society can deal more humanely with the victims of dementia

Celebrate Dagenham victory but long way to go to achieve equality

The excellent film Made in Dagenham focuses on the strike of the women workers seeking equal pay at the Ford plant in 1968.
A cleverly constructed film, it deals with inequality on a number of levels. So there is the basic dispute itself between the management and women workers, who insist they should not be getting half what the men are for doing the same grade of job.
This leads to other frictions such as in the male dominated trade union. The senior officers end up trying to collude with Fords management against the women.
Then as the dispute goes on it stops the work for the men as well, so they are laid off. This causes tensions between the men and women. This tension is reflected in the marriage between two of the central figures Rita and Eddie O’Grady.
It is all resolved by the end, with the women winning a famous victory. They get substantially what they were seeking from Ford and with the intervention of then employment secretary Barbara Castle the equal pay act comes into effect two years later.
If there were a sequel film though it would have to focus on what has happened - or not happened - to bring about equal pay in the 40 years since the equal pay act became law.
Women are still discriminated against in the workplace, the difference being – as with many forms of discrimination – that it has become more covert.
As a result of the Dagenham strike, the women initially got 92 per cent pay parity with men. Today, despite equalities legislation and the culture change the gap is 17 per cent in full time jobs and 38 per cent for part time. Women tend to be disproportionately represented in the lower paid and part time end of the jobs market. At the other end, things are little better with women making up just 2 per cent of Chief Executive Officers. A mere 17 per cent of directorships are held by women.
At Parliamentary level things have gone backwards in some cases. So in the Scottish Parliament, the number of women members has fallen from 39.5 per cent in 2005 to 37.4 per cent in 2010. There was similar decline in the Welsh Assembly going from 50 per cent to 46.7 per cent in the same period. By way of comparison, some 27.7 per cent members of the Afghanistan and 25.5 per cent of the Iraqi Parliament are women.
At the present rate of progress it will take another 200 years before women get parity with men at Westminster.
In the trade union world things have faired little better.
While the unions have been at the forefront of the push for greater equality in the workplace, they themselves remain unrepresentative of women in the most part.
Women do hold senior union positions, like Frances O’Grady, the deputy general secretary of the TUC, but on the whole women are not represented proportionately at the top tables compared to the level of membership they make up.
So there is still much to be done if equality is ever to be attained in the workplace. The cuts agenda being pursued by the Coalition Government threatens to hit women disproportionately hard. Given the idealogical desire of the Coalition Government to seemingly dismantle the public sector, where 70 per cent of jobs are held by women, the effects likely to result are obvious.
The discrimination against women means that they already dominate areas of low and part time pay mean that they will suffer the brunt of the cuts. Families too will be hit hardest.
The Made in Dagenham film has come out at a timely moment, just prior to the details of the cuts being revealed. The film reminds everyone of the injustice of a system that treats women as second class citizens.
The victory of the women marked a high point in defeating sex discrimination in the workplace but the 40 years since has only seen slow progress towards true equality. The danger must be that if the cuts agenda being proposed by the Coalition Government goes through in full, it could prove yet another step back for women’s equality. The struggle for equal pay goes on but there is still a long way to go.

Combatting climate change cannot become cuts victim

What is becoming apparent is that the Coaltion Government's cuts agenda appears to make no allowance for the need to address climate change. David Cameron's protestations that this will be the greenest government ever do not stand up to scrutiny, The rhetoric may say the government is taking climate change seriously but the reality suggests it regards the challenge as at best something that can be put on the back burner until more prosperous economic times return. This cannot be allowed to happen. If the government is serious about climate change and economic recovery it should be investing heavily in green technology and reducing the countries reliance on oil.
Putting up rail fares to price people into their cars and cutting investment in industries involved in producing wind turbines suggests this government is heading in exactly the opposite direction. The need to cut carbon emissions and seriously address climate change cannot wait, it has to happen now. No economic decision - including cuts - should be taken without considering its implications for the planet, to do otherwise will result in us all reaping a terrible price in the long term.