Thursday, 29 August 2013

Any intervention in Syria is a matter for the UN, not a minor power like Britain

Why does a minor power in the world like Britain believe it should be leading the charge to military intervention in Syria? I know Briton's have an aptitude for historical amnesia but surely the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles are fresh enough in everybodies mind to be wary of another such venture. This is all leaving aside the great austerity backdrop, which apparently disappears as a matter of any consequence, when it comes to intervening in other people's countries. If there is to be any intervention in Syria it must be entirely via the UN, not at the behest of a former imperial power struggling to come to terms with its new status in the world.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Chaplaincy saving lives at Beachy Head

Beachy Head in Sussex is one of the most beautiful places in the UK. It marks the edge of the downland, where it meets the sea, reaching out as far as the eye can see.

The cliff is a well known beauty spot with the chalk escarpment surging up from the beach to a 535 feet height above sea level.

Many will immediately recognise Beachy Head from the pictures of the  iconic red and white stripped lighthouse which sits just off shore dwarfed by the cliffs overhead.

Sitting on the cliff looking out, it is a fantastic sight to see the birds swooping in and out of the chalk face. Below the canoists look like ants, navigating their way around rocks, set amid the sea green setting.

But this fantastic place also has a darker side. While it takes many people’s emotions to new highs, for others the opposite is true bringing a depression that for some sadly ends in death. For Beachy Head has also been a favourite site over the centuries for people to come and commit suicide.  31 people died here in 2012, 19 so far this year. It is estimated that on average 20 people a year die at Beachy Head.

I’ve visited Beachy Head many times over the years, looking out in wonder at the views, then descending through the chalk based downland to the bustling life of the sea front.

It was though the recent death of James Bond and Eastenders actor Paul Bhattacharjee that awakened my interest to return once again.

I read first of the death of the actor in the local Eastbourne press in July, then returning to home in Wanstead, London saw the same person in the local paper there. It turned out that Mr Bhattacharjee lived in Wanstead. He had been rehearsing for a West End show then just disappeared one day, turning up on the East Sussex coast. In the end, it turned out that he had not died at Beachy Head but a neighbouring cliff in Seaford, however, his death stirred me to wonder why. He was a man seemingly with everything to live for but who decided he could take no more. No doubt his death also had some resonance with me at the time as I was only going between London and south coast that week due to the death of my own mother in Eastbourne.

Anyway, it spurred my return Beachy Head. The place has now become well geared up to saving lives. Phone numbers for the Samaritans are posted outside the Beachy Head pub with a phone box for those who need help. Staff at the pub itself advise if they see someone who looks as though they may have come up to end their lives. However, the biggest lifesaver over the past decade has been the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team (BHCT). From 2004 through to the end of July 2013 BHCT responded to 5776 searches and incidents resulting in the rescue of 2,088 despondent people

The chaplaincy began in 2004 with six volunteers. It now has around 20 people working for it, recently expanding due to the increasing calls on its work. The chaplaincy carry out patrols 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They receive alerts about possible suicides from the police, pub and café staff and the public.

It is certainly worthwhile work that the chaplaincy does, saving lives.

Team members are trained in negotiation techniques similar to those used by law enforcement agencies around the world to try to establish connections with despondent people at the cliff top and try to diffuse high levels of stress.

As well as talking to people who appear distressed and who look like they intend to jump, they also work with the Coastguard and emergency services.

The avowed intention of the chaplaincy is to end suicides at Beachy Head. There were 771 searches on the cliffs by BHCT last year, with 305 despondent people saved. The worrying thing at the moment is that the numbers of people coming to the beauty spot to try to end their lives appears to be on the increase.

Over recent months there has been an increase in numbers, with 512 searches to the end of July resulting in 211 people being saved. In May, there were 97 searches with 39 people saved. June saw the number of searches at 87 with 39 people saved and 76 searches in July with 32 people saved.

Speaking to a local newspaper in December, Ross Hardy, the then director of the chaplaincy team, said: “ We have rescued something like 290 people this year.

"That would be a record. It is hard to say exactly why there has been such a rise but we do tend to see a peak in times of recession.

“People always have different reasons for their own personal circumstances, but financial troubles do tend to have an impact on other aspects on people’s lives.”

The chaplaincy team are concerned that insensitive media publicity surrounding deaths at Beachy Head also helps encourage people to come and attempt to take their lives. They point to the case of the Puttick family, who died on 1 June 2009. The case, where parents Neil and Kazumi, killed themselves at Beachy Head after five year old son Sam died of meningitis, drew international media attention. In the month that followed there was a surge in the number of people coming to the beauty spot seeking to end their lives. The week that followed the BHCT conducted 33 searches, saving 15 despondent people. Similar patterns have been noted with other high profile cases.  

It is difficult to know how this can be changed. The media will cover the story, simply not talking to them, may only ensure that the exposure is even more sensational.

What is needed is greater understanding of what drives people to the point where they are prepared to take their lives. Depression and the underlying pressures of society no doubt play a part and a greater understanding is needed of these issues in the public at large.

The chaplaincy is clearly doing great work and deserves all the support it can get both financial and spiritual. The challenges are growing but this is one area where a true Christian response can be seen actually saving lives.

The real positive note from the story is the number of people saved by the BHCT over the past decade, who have gone on to put their lives back together and live happy fulfilling lives. It is they who are the testimony to the importance of this work.
* see:

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Detention of David Miranda betrays real agenda behind anti-terror law

The detention of David Miranda under schedule 7 of the
Terrorism Act should surprise no one. It is the logical conclusion of the evolution of anti-terror law in the UK over the past four decades.

This legislation has never really been about stopping terrorism but policing dissent. Note the Terrorism Act itself, extending detention under anti-terror law from seven to 14 days came in 2000, a time of unprecedented peace in Northern Ireland and pre-9/11.

The boundaries of anti-terror law have been pushed and pushed since the introduction of the first Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 1974, in the midst of the Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings. 

The justification for anti-terror laws shelters under what former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall John Alderson called the cry of dictators everywhere, namely give me your liberties and I will give you security.

The stopping of thousands of mainly Irish people at ports and airports under the early PTA was documented by Paddy Hillyard in his excellent book Suspect Community.

The whole process though took on a new life with 9/11. Draconian legislation was passed allowing detention without trial, then the use of control orders. People being represented by special advocates with the accused and lawyers unable to see the evidence or even know what they were accused of.

It is against this ongoing process that the detention of Miranda needs to be seen.  A police state has been building up in the shadows in this country for decades. It has been regularly justified on that need to prevent terrorism but in reality it has been all about stopping dissent of any kind.

So while in the early stages anti-terror focused on making suspect communities of first the Irish and then the Muslims, now its tentacles have stretched out to enmesh anti-arms protesters, journalists and others who dissent.

The level of acceptance of this state of affairs can be seen even with the latest incident, where despite the outrage over the detention of Miranda, no one seems to be concerned that 60,000 plus people a year are being stopped under this legislation. What possible justification can there be for such action other than that of dictators everywhere, namely give me your liberties and I will give you security

Monday, 19 August 2013

Church has role to play in countering in-work poverty

Unemployment may be slowly reducing but the number of working people living in poverty is going up.

The Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) recently noted this trend when it welcomed the reduction in unemployment . “The announcement that unemployment has fallen is extremely encouraging. However, employment alone is not enough to tackle rising levels of UK poverty. Catholic charities are reporting more and more families who are in work seeking their assistance as they struggle to meet even the basic e of living,” said Liam Allmark, the public policy officer at CSAN. “With two-thirds of children living in poverty coming from working households and almost 5 million people earning below the amount necessary to meet basic living costs, more must be done to tackle the scandal of in-work poverty”

Many suspect that what is being created in this country is a low wage economy with the squeeze on benefits being used to force people into any type of work. This work is increasingly low paid and part-time in nature. So more people are employed but they earn less and less.

A look at the British labour market makes for some startling reading. A recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Trust found that 6.1 million people living in poverty came from households where at least one person was working. Just 5.1 million of those living in poverty came from workless households.

Some 14 per cent of the total number of people in in-work poverty live in households where all of the adults are in full-time work.

One-earner couple families make up 25% of adults and children in in-work poverty; the majority have children but a sizeable minority do not.

Another element of in-work poverty is the growth of the people termed as self-employed. The JRT research found that almost a quarter of those in in-work poverty lived in households where at least one person is self-employed.

 28% of poor working couples with children and 32% of couples without children live in households where at least one of them is self-employed.

Self-employment has a public profile of entrepreneurs with their own small businesses but it has become more and more just another way for employers to get around responsibilities like providing holidays and sick pay.

The care or hotel worker can just as easily be classified as self-employed thereby allowing the employer to get around the statutory obligations.

The rising levels of in-work poverty are also having an impact on children, with those living below the poverty line now twice as likely to come from working families struggling on low incomes and falling wages than those whose parents are unemployed.

The number of children growing up in absolute poverty increased by 300,000 last year – an annual rise of 2 per cent, representing the biggest rise in two decades – according to Department for Work and Pensions figures.

The rise means a total of 2.6 million children are now raised in poverty. After housing costs, the number is even higher, with 3.5 million in families whose incomes are significantly lower than the rest of the population.

The freeze on wage levels for those in work is resulting in ever more people turning to the money lender to bolster up their lifestyles. A move that makes the churches intitiatives to counter loan shark lenders and support the growth of credit unions all the more important.

The JRT suggest that paths out need to be found for those in low paid work in areas like hotels, catering, care and retail. They need to be able to get better paying jobs. Skills need to be improved via training for those on low pay. They also suggest business models that reward higher skills and productivity.

What also is required are stronger trade unions to represent people in these low paid areas. Catholic Social Teaching has always been strong in urging workers to become members of unions and chiding those employers that seek to stop this happening.

The Church has also played a major role in community organising groups like London Citizens and Citizens UK helping unions to get into difficult low paid areas like security and cleaning.

The Church has championed the living wage, which is another means to lift millions of people out of poverty pay. Little is said in the ongoing debate on welfare about the amount going to big businesses that pay low wages to employees in order that the shortfall can be made up via tax credits funded from the public purse.

So there are ways in which people can be lifted out of in-work poverty. What is for sure is that as the support net of the welfare state is being gradually removed pressure needs to be brought on employers to pay higher wages and provide more employment. Failure to do so will simply add to the number of those in work but also living in poverty

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Family taking the strain in austere times

Family life is under pressure as never before, as a result of the austerity measures being brought in by the government.
First there was the news that there are more than one million people on zero hours contracts.
Zero hour contracts do not guarantee workers employment but they have to be effectively on call the whole time for whatever work may become available. These contracts do not include other benefits like holiday allocations or sick pay.
Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) was quick to highlight the damage that these contracts could do to family life.   
 “For families already struggling week by week to balance a budget, meet rent payments, pay food and utility bills and cover other basic outgoings,  the insecurity of zero-hour contracts can result in significant hardship. Often individuals will not know their working hours in advance and can be sent home at short notice. Such arrangements can be hugely disruptive for families and upset childcare arrangements as well as making financial planning extremely difficult,” said Helen O’Brien, chief executive of CSAN. “Employers have a moral duty to pay just wages and provide fair terms and conditions.”
The zero hour contract is particularly prevalent in care work, with an estimated 370,000 such contacts in the sector. There is no security of employment, with the worker on call the whole time. I witnessed these contracts in action with my own mother.
The care workers generally did an excellent job in caring for her but it was possible to see the strain being put on the individuals concerned by the contracts. Staggering in some nights after 18 plus calls in a day. Then there would be the other days where they had three one hour calls, then a gap of two or three hours in the middle of the day before resuming later in the afternoon running into the evening and night.
Many of the people doing this work have families. As a result of the unpredictable hours it was a constant juggling act to try to make work fit around the need to pick up children and look after them.
The workers concerned were totally powerless, they had to take what they were given. The suggestion that they needed a trade union was usually met with a wry smile of agreement but such a move was unlikely to be greeted by the employer.
A quarter of organisations with 250 or more employees used zero hours contracts compared to 11% of smaller organisations with fewer.
Further evidence of the pressure on families came with a report from the Money Advice Service showing growing numbers of people getting themselves into debt.
Some 26million were found to be facing money troubles – nine million more than in 2006 – and 18million routinely run out of cash before payday arrives.
The amount earned per hour has dropped by six per cent in real terms since 2006.
“These findings tally with the experience of many Catholic charities who have reported increased demand for their debt advice services over the past few years. This development is extremely worrying and we have real concerns that families may increasingly be forced to turn to high interest lenders and payday loan companies,” said Mrs O'Brien.
Beyond the world of work, the some of the changes to the benefits system are putting increasing pressure on the family. The imposition of the bedroom tax and cap on benefits of £500 a week for a family mean that many families are being uprooted and moved to other parts of the country. Director of Housing Justice Alison Gelder recently highlighted how the a London borough is seeking to move people it cannot afford to house under the new arrangements out to Leicester, South Wales and Bradford. This type of action will have a devastating effect on family life. Children are taken out of school, the whole family is taken away from support networks. The moves will also not help get people into work – the government’s avowed intention - as care support for children, that may come from relations and friends, will not be available if the family unit is uprooted and moved across the country.
All of these changes are putting an unprecedented pressure on the family unit. The Church has recognised this pressure with Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichol regularly raising the issue. He together with other faith leaders, trade union and enlightened employers have called for the enactment of a living wage across the country. The London living wage was recently set at £8.55 by Mayor Boris Johnson. Outside of the capital the minimum level recommended is £7.45 an hour.
Payment of a living wage would substantially ease the burden being placed on families. It would stop the scrabble of so many to get a lot of low paid work to make ends meet. This in turn allow parents more time with children. It is a price that employers would have to pay for the common good. Our society cannot continue with this race to the bottom approach that repeatedly hits the family unit hardest