Monday, 13 February 2012

Virtual communication

A busy road brought to a standstill by a road accident on a Saturday evening.
This was the recent scene on the Euston Road in London, a collision between a motor bike and a black cab resulted in a ferocious fire in the midst of the traffic. The police had sealed off the area, the fire brigade were putting out the fire and ambulances raced to the scene. Some 500 yards further along the road there had been another accident. This time a bus had been emptied with the body of the person being tied to a stretcher as paramedics moved to take him to hospital.
The reaction of passers-bye to these two scenes was remarkable to behold, straining to get a closer look, camera phones at the ready to snap a shot of the gory scenes. No doubt any resulting images were quickly uploaded on You tube for the whole world to see. No privacy here. It was as if human emotion had been suspended in some sort of reality TV take on the tragedies.
This strange disconnected ness is particularly apparent in London, where people spend much time rushing around from pillar to post, many not knowing why.
On the tube, it is remarkable to observe people plugged into mobile phones, lap tops or I players, totally oblivious to the outside world. As many will know, especially those coming from outside London who stumble into the bizarre world of the tube journey, speaking to people is totally taboo. If someone speaks to a stranger they are likely to be met with a stare as though totally mad. It is the unwritten rule that strangers do not speak on the London Underground.
Yet many of the same individuals who studiously ignore each other on the tube will share their most intimate details with total strangers via social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter.
So there are the Facebook members who share details of their pregnancy scans or life threatening diseases.
Then there are those that seem to have to tell all what they are doing no matter how mundane, from taking the car in for a repair to what they had for breakfast.
A similar process can take place on Twitter with what is known as trending. For the celebrity class in particular this amounts to simply telling people what you are doing all day.
A few years ago this type of behaviour might have been considered a cry for help. Today, it is regarded as totally normal way to share your most mundane and intimate details with the whole world via cyberspace networks.
It is all very bemusing, in some cases no doubt it is a cry for help but in most it seems to have simply replaced more traditional ways of meeting, greeting and communicating with each other.
The worry with these virtual world developments is that people are losing contact with each other in human terms. The day to day contact and support that has been the bedrock of society down the years is breaking down. Communities are changing from physical to virtual reality.
Contact, particularly for the younger generations is often via the remote sphere of the computer screen or mobile phone. Though there is great value to be had from these electronic networks, particularly between people in different countries, they must not replace the more traditional connections of community.
There can be a strange trust of things and people in cyberspace, based on the virtual nature of the medium. This can be dangerous in a world that has no fewer predatory characters willing to prey on the vulnerable than the “real world.”
In this respect the Church has much to offer. People coming together in community each week to celebrate before God offers that very human link. The social networks ofcourse play a vital role in bringing together different parts of Church communities as well but these structures need to become part of community not replacements for it.
While it can be all too easy to start castigating elements of developments like the internet, there are definitely dehumanising elements to these structures.
Atomisation of people as individuals separate from any sort of communal structure is not healthy for society.
Churches together with other communal organisations like trade unions. social clubs and charities all have a role to play in creating the real physical as well as the virtual reality world of social networking.
It will certainly be a lot less humane world that breeds a generation of individuals who see everything as though it were part of a reality TV show, whether that be a serious road traffic accident on the Euston Road or having a baby on the internet

Need for revolution in the workplace

There needs to be a fundamental rethink about the world of work agenda.A consensus stretching from the Occupy London Movement through the trade unions to the Archbishop of Canterbury and enlightened business leaders argues that the present market driven system is not working.The system has produced obscene inequalities of wealth between a few rich people and everybody else. Large companies that use the labour and resources of the UK avoid paying taxes. The poor and vulnerable are made to pay the costs in terms of deficit reduction. These are parasitic forms of capitalism.There needs to be some new thinking based on the common good. What is the rationale in Britain today for a situation where there are more than 1 million 18 to 24 years olds unemployed, yet at the other end of the scale the retirement age is being continually extended upward?At some point there has to be a readjustment, enhancing pensions and lowering the retirement age so that more older people can retire in order to free up jobs at the other end for youngsters.One interesting idea to come from the New Economics Foundation is that there should be a shorter working week. The suggested level is 20 hours a week, which would mean more jobs to go round, allowing people to spend increased time with their families. Economist Robert Skidelsky argues that even when the downturn ends there will be fewer jobs to go round due to technological advances. He suggests that the government should legislate for a maximum working week. The paying of a living wage would also play a crucial part in this type of settlement; given that another unsavoury element of the present system is the reliance on low wage economy with people being driven down to accept the lowest remuneration possible. This race to the bottom results in some being forced to do two or three low paid jobs to keep themselves afloat, hardly good for family life. A shorter working week, that encompassed genuine flexibility, would provide more time particularly for parents to spend with their children. The present economic system that has urged parents out to work has caused untold damage in terms of parenting for children. This cost is becoming increasingly obvious in society as the years go by.A move toward shorter working weeks and a lower retirement age would ofcourse fly in the face of the previous orthodoxy of people working ever longer hours for less pay. This was evidenced last week by a report from the Labour Force Survey that found 5.3 million workers put in an average of 7.2 hours of unpaid overtime a week last year, worth around £5,300 a year per personThere would ofcourse have to be other measures brought in so that people could work 20 hours and support their families. Another area in need of focus would be retirement. The retirement age needs to be brought down not pushed inexorably up in the hope that more people will die in work, thereby denying them the state pension they have slaved for years to earn.It is a sobering thought that the latest state retirement age of 67 is just three years less than when the pension was first established back in 1911.There is much rubbish talked about people living longer and not being able to afford pensions. There is a surplus of over £50 billion in the National Pension Fund, where the National Insurance contributions reside to pay state pensions. Company pensions are similarly misrepresented by measuring solvency on the basis of everybody drawing their pensions on the same day. This will never happen. Indeed, many will die without drawing a pension or only having received a small draw down on the total they invested.An elderly population supported by decent pensions will able many to do voluntary work in the community. Many already fulfil substantial childcare roles for their grandchildren.It is these types of inventive ideas that focus upon the common good of all, rather than the well being a few wealthy individuals and institutions that should form the bedrock for economic policy moving forward. The present short termist approach seems likely only to result in a generation of young people struggling to find work, while the elderly are forced to work or face a life of poverty. Inbetween these groups are people struggling to bring up children in impoverished conditions.A little enlightened thinking with a focus on the common good could provide a much better work/life balance for all in the land.

Congratulations to CAFOD on 50 years but don't lose the prophetic voice

CAFOD recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with a mass at Westminster Cathedral.
It is a truly great achievement to have built such an effective aid agency right up from grass roots action.
It was back in the early 1960s that four women, Jacquie Stuyt, Elspeth Orchard, Evelyn White and Nora Warmington came together around the idea of family fast. Then general secretary of the Catholic Institute for International Relations Margaret Feeny, as part of her work for the Freedom from Hunger campaign, called together the Catholic agencies to look at what could be done. It was from these initiatives that CAFOD was formed.
Today the organisation has grown to the point where it has an income of £55 million a year (£37.5 million from supporters and £17.8 million from institutions) and employs more than 200 people.
The high regard with which CAFOD is held was reflected a couple of days after the anniversary mass when the Department for International Development (DFID) appointed it as one of the agencies prequalified to receive international funds when an humanitarian crisis strikes. “I was particularly impressed by your organisation’s ability to respond to a whole range of humanitarian emergencies, save lives and alleviate suffering of affected people through a team of dedicated professionals often working in dangerous or high risk environments,” said Andrew Mitchell, the secretary of state for international development.
CAFOD also has a high reputation internationally in the Church and beyond as part of the Caritas network. It is a hugely successful Church organisation from which many others could learn.
CAFOD has largely been the guiding star for those involved in social justice work in England and Wales. There were so many people present at the anniversary mass who recalled being brought into the work of social justice as a result of their initial involvement with CAFOD.
In the 1980s, under the visionary leadership of then director Julian Filochowski, the organisation expanded significantly not only providing funds to support overseas projects but also playing a prophetic role at home and abroad. It was particularly inspired by the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980 and worked with liberation theologians in Latin America. Dom Helder Camara was a key partner. In South Africa, that stalwart opponent of apartheid Archbishop Denis Hurley was another close confidante. So the organisation was directly involved in the liberation struggles.
At home this activism was fired by a growing justice and peace network directly supported and funded by CAFOD. The aid agency part-funded workers and commissions in many dioceses as well as the National Justice and Peace Network.
From the late 1970s CAFOD put huge resources into development education and the processes of formation across the diocese of England and Wales. This investment in people paid dividends creating a network of committed campaigners following gospel values in working for social justice.
So where is the organisation today? It has grown yes, it is respected by government and people across the globe. This increases the opportunity to put the side of the poor at the top tables. It is a trailblazer in many ways, Take for example the new building next to Southwark Cathedral that has been designed for its environmental sustainability - a real case of not just talking the talk but walking the walk.
But is it as prophetic an organisation as it once was? There is no doubt much work going on around the world. There has been good interfaith work but could CAFOD be said to have become more an organisation of maintenance than mission?
There has been a perception amongst some that CAFOD has become too much to resemble a small to medium term business, focused on growing the brand with fundraising taking precedence over all else.
What of the formation work? CAFOD still does great education work with schools and youth. It also has an effective campaigning arm but it doesn’t do the formation work with adults that it used to do.
CAFOD managers would no doubt claim the world has changed and rightly so. There is the internet, email campaigns etc but there may also be a certain complacency. The grassroots network that makes CAFOD such an effective campaigning organisation did not happen by accident. It largely came about due to the formation processes of past years, through the work of development education and the justice and peace networks. It should not be taken for granted. It is a network that if not nurtured and encouraged with new blood could eventually wither and die. Without this network, CAFOD and the Church as a whole will lose a vital resource.
It is this root in the Church communities that means it is able to retain an independent voice to government and beyond (67% of funding comes from supporters). Losing that base would threaten the very ethos of CAFOD threatening to make it just another charity dependent on highly paid fundraisers and public relations staff deploying mail shots.
So congratulations to CAFOD on its 50th anniversary and good luck for the coming years. Long may your excellent work continue, just be sure though not to head so far down the corporate path. CAFOD is always best when prophetic, fulfilling the role of mission rather than maintenance in the world

Government attack on the disabled shames the country

Government attack on disabled shames the country
The Government led assault on people with disabilities is no doubt one of the most disgraceful acts of any party in power over recent times.
The now familiar approach of using the vast array of sympathetic right wing media outlets to trumpet a particularly vicious populist message has been seen in evidence with the disabled. This has led to a perception of disabled people cheating on benefits.
The Government declared its desire to cut Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in 2015 by 20 per cent. Another seemingly arbitrary figure arrived at who knows how but justified as with many other things on the back of deficit reduction. No mention of the £20 billion of benefits that go unclaimed or the ongoing welfare provision, now running into the hundreds of billions for the banks.
No, let’s target a weak vulnerable group as benefit cheats. Labour shadow work and pensions minister Anne McGuire warned of what was happening last December.
She claimed that media attacks on disabled people could be being fuelled by government briefings. “The feeding to the media of press releases and distortions of figures and the calling into question of whether people really are disabled is causing real harm,” said McGuire. “Some of the language used has perhaps fuelled a view of a stereotype of a disabled person as having a life on benefits, a benefit cheat.”

Now six charities have claimed the government’s focus on alleged fraud and over claiming to justify cuts in disability benefits has caused an increase in resentment and abuse directed toward disabled people, as they find themselves being labelled as scroungers.
Some of the charities say they are now regularly contacted by people who have been taunted on the street about supposedly faking their disability and are concerned the climate of suspicion could spill over into violence or other hate crimes.
The charities, Scope, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the National Autistic Society, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Disability Alliance said the inflammatory media coverage has played a role in bringing this situation about.
They blamed ministers and civil servants for repeatedly highlighting the supposed mass abuse of the disability benefits system, much of which is unfounded. “The reality is that benefit fraud is rare – in fact more money goes unclaimed than is defrauded. Our polling shows that this narrative has coincided with attitudes towards disabled people getting worse. Disabled people tell us that increasingly people don’t believe that they are disabled and suddenly feel empowered to question their entitlement to support,” said Richard Hawkes, the chief executive of Scope.
The charities criticise ministers for being "deeply irresponsible" in conflating DLA, which helps disabled people hold down jobs, and Employment and Support Allowance, a payment for those unable to work.
There have been similar moves in other areas, such as the attack on health and safety regulations. Again the media has played a supportative role with the cuts narrative, providing a number of exceptional examples to prove a norm that there is a health and safety culture out there. The fact that many of the abuses at work are caused by bad employers who behave in a negligent way never comes into this particular narrative. So just as Work and Pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith can call for a 20% cut in DLA, so Employment minister Chris Grayling says he is going to do away with a third of HSE legislation.
The approach of the government whereby it quite deliberately creates an often totally false narrative in a mainly compliant media over scroungers and benefits cheats as a backdrop to some cost cutting policy initiative is a new and particularly despicable way of operating. Government is there as the representatives of the people to provide just and equitable government not direct attacks on vulnerable groups by scapegoating them. It should be defending such groups.
Targeting the vulnerable in the name of deficit reduction is no way for a civilised country to behave. It is the rich and well off who have done so well out of the economic system that should now be being asked to dig deeper to meet the defict bill not the weakest and most vulnerable. Higher taxes on the wealthy and actually collecting taxes from companies domiciled in this country would be a start. These would be the basis of an equitable settlement that that the mass of people could accept. The present approach of targeting the weak and vulnerable is a squalid approach that does this country no credit

Thursday, 9 February 2012

No time to be throwing out human rights

The European Court of Human Rights has played a vital role in safeguarding citizen’s rightsThe Prime Minister recently took to berating the Council of Europe about the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).The Premier was looking for restrictions on the right to take cases to the ECHR in Strasbourg. Mr Cameron takes his brief on human rights from the rabid tabloid press which has whipped up a frenzy around the concept as though upholding them is in some way aiding criminals. A focus of the most recent hysteria has been the rights of prisoners to vote and the case of the Jordanian man Abu Qatada who it was ruled could not be deported because he would be likely to face a trial where evidence obtained by using torture could be used. Qatada has variously been described as being part of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden's "right hand man in Europe."Where these descriptions came from can only be speculated about but enough to say they suggest a less than fair trial maybe available to Qatada, not only in Jordan but also in the UK. Not that he it would seem is ever likely to come before a properly constituted court of law in the UK.Qatada is one of a number of men who has been held under immigration law overseen by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission for the best part of the past 10 years.The existence of the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention) has not stopped this detention taking place but it has resulted in modifications. This meant that in 2004, some three years after detention without trial was established, under the Anti-terror crime and security Act, the law lords ruled it unlawful under the Convention. This then resulted in the control order regime, bringing detention in accommodation and the surrounding area, being established.The Human Rights Act brought in by the Labour Government simply amounted to the downloading of the ECHR into domestic law, thereby avoiding so many cases as in the past having to take the long and winding path to the court in Strasbourg. There was though still the ultimate appeal to the ECHR. It is difficult to see how Mr Cameron's proposal that the most trivial cases should not go forward could work. Who makes the judgement on triviality, a politician taking his or her brief from the British tabloid press.Under such a new construction what would have happened to cases like the one against the government back in 1978 when the ECHR ruled against the use of the five interrogation techniques by the British army in the north of Ireland. These the court ruled amounted to "inhuman and degrading treatment" and a breach of the Convention. Then there was the ECHR ruling in 1995 of unlawful killing in the case of the three IRA volunteers shot dead in Gibralter in 1988. In Britain, there have been ECHR decisions stopping the police retaining the DNA of innocent people indefinitely and restrictions on stop and search powers. How can this be bad?Human rights have been hard won over the years. The ECHR was established after the Second World War with the British ironically playing a crucial founding role in that process. The reason there is a backlog at the Strasbourg based ECHR is mainly because of the number of new countries coming under the auspices of the ECHR. It is having a civilizing effect.Having fought long and hard to obtain human rights now is not the time to go throwing them away. The vista of justice denied being whipped up around cases like that of Abu Qatada and the right of prisoners to have a vote needs to be seen off. It is just cheap populist political point scoring. Human rights are inalienable to each individual, not something to be given or taken away at the behest of some populist politician. This is something not universally understood. This allows the unscrupulous politician to reconfigure the whole idea of rights as in some way amounting to privileges to be bartered away in populist fashion. It is still difficult to fathom a supposedly educated nation supporting politicians who offer to take away their human rights.There should be no change in the Human Rights Act or the European Convention on Human Rights. If anything the Convention needs strengthening with the judiciary given stronger rights of enforcement, certainly not watering down in the name of short term populism.

Priest's role needs to change

The role of the priest is an often lonely and unsupported one.
Former chair of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission Baroness Patricia Scotland said as much last year “The priests and religious are people too – they need friendship and comfort and someone to have a glass of wine with or watch the football,” said Baroness Scotland.
There has been much talk of the crisis that has engulfed the priesthood. This until relatively recent times amounted in the main to a shortage of those willing to take up the vocation.
The crisis though concerns more than lack of numbers. The abuse crisis that has engulfed the Church has caused many to question the role of the priest as it is presently constituted.
Some argue married and female priests are the answer. This is not the case, it is just as easy to have an authoritarian unaccountable married or female priest as it is a celibate male one.
The problem is the role itself. At present priests have too much power in the parishes. There is slightly more accountability now with parish councils having become more commonplace but these can merely amount to rubber stamping bodies.
I recall hearing about the parish in the Midlands where it had been agreed a sustainable heating system would be introduced. A new priest came in with his own ideas. He did not want this form of energy supply and reversed the decision. A parishioner told of her feeling of total disempowerment. The only way she could make a protest was to move to another church something she did not want nor should have had to do. She had been in the parish for years, the priest for literally five minutes.
The line management structure in the Church is very hierarchal. Direct responsibility is to the bishop and above. The nature of this relationship was underlined in the recent high court ruling in the case involving Portsmouth diocese, where the Church was found vicariously responsible for the actions of its priests. This related in the case in question to abuse.
This relationship can be disempowering for the priest who has no independent source of income or pension in the future. It is not a partnership of equals.
The role of priest needs to change. There is a need for accountability to the parish and local community. Priests also need support. One problem is that lack of a real job description, a recognition of what makes a "good priest" in the 21st century context.
All too often the role seems to gravitate between that of the policeman and social worker, taking in everything else inbetween. Many priests provide fantastic pastoral support to those in the parish. Others are more authoritarian, telling people what they must or must not do.
What of the role of the priest as an empowerer of the local community? The shop steward come community organiser role that demands skills that get the mass of the parish involved in working for social justice.
What sort of training is provided in the seminaries? What do they see as the job description they are trying to form young priests to serve?
The weekly homily is a plum spot for giving an inspiring message but I have always been struck by the ability of so many priests to talk pie in the sky rather than link to the every day life of those to whom they are preaching. This means many switch off. When the message is delivered in accessible form it can be disempowering.
This is a terrible waste, as drawing on my own childhood I remember clearly the passionate addresses of the Franciscan Friars then at St Anthonys, Forest Gate in east London. They inspired and got us all thinking about living the faith.
What few priests do seem to do these days is provide proper formation in the parishes. All too many lapse into the role of overseers of maintenance rather than mission.
Many ofcourse lack the skills themselves to develop adult formation of the missionary faithful but this support should be available. A better formation of priests and remoulding of the role to be that of the servant rather than the master of the parish community could transform the priesthood.
The role of the priests needs some serious consideration as part of a much larger look at the whole hierarchical structure of the Church. At present the role of priest is a lonely, largely unsupported one. Too much is expected. The priest cannot do everything. Then what of the excellent priests leaving the Church for a variety of reasons?
Democracy and accountability needs to be introduced at every level of the Church starting with the priest. The role needs redefining with training provided to meet the requirements. There also need to be support networks in the community for those taking on the role of priest. Only such change will bring about the sort of priesthood that can help take the Church forward in partnership with the parish communities