Sunday, 27 October 2013

Politics, poverty and the Church

There was a very telling moment earlier in the year at the St Pauls Institute debate on the Common Good and the City, when former Bishop of Worcester Peter Selby challenged the keynote speaker Archbishop Vincent Nichols to take a side on poverty and join in schools of resistance.

“In the light of what we have been going through in the last five years, we need schools of resistance as well as virtue,” said Bishop Selby. “The question is whether the Roman Catholic Church and Church of England are prepared to become schools of resistance on some of these issues.”

Archbishop Nichols refused to be drawn on the point, preferring instead to avoid taking sides appealing to people’s better nature. The response said much about the positioning of the Catholic Church in the public discourse today.

The Church is concerned to secure as bigger influence as possible in the public square. Faith schools and the work of agencies like CAFOD all form part of this presence.

The Church is keen to extend its influence in the domestic social welfare agenda. In this respect the work of Caritas Social Action Network has been to the fore, representing a myriad of agencies, including the Cardinal Hume Centre, Housing Justice and the De Paul Trust.

The organisation has done some excellent work over recent years questioning government policy in areas like work and welfare as well as helping to develop a network of support. The Church often via its agencies but also directly through the bishops has made some valuable interventions on issues like the effects of the austerity agenda on the family. There has been the whole debt issue, including loan shark lenders. The Church of England have moved further on this with its initiative to rival Wonga.

The problems of poverty in work have also been commented upon. The Church is also doing some excellent work on the ground, supporting the foodbanks network – 350,000 people now go to foodbanks. Helping destitute asylum seekers, the homeless and the work of the SVP in helping the poor. Much of this work is being done in the name of charity, which is fine – it is an important part of the faith commitment. However, the question that always arises is what about the justice? As Pope John XXIII said charity cannot replace justice.

Charity is always easier to do than justice. I remember in my own parish, as part of the J&P group, we never had a problem with getting in food and other goods to take to the refugee centre, however, there were problems when we tried to ask why there were refugees – pointing to the causes and some of the government legislation that caused the hardships. People were less comfortable. We are seeing a similar thing today with foodbanks. Up and down the country, churches collect goods for foodbanks but how often do those putting their cans in the bin, ask why in the 5th biggest economy in the world are 350,000 people a year going to foodbanks. Why in a country that has 88 billionares are we in this situation?

It was the questioning of where is the justice in all of this that came to mind at a CSAN conference in June titled “the Catholic response to the poverty crisis.” Again, worthy contributions but much of the conference was about what the Church was doing on the ground to deal with poverty, yes important but should the Church not be questioning the whole austerity agenda and whether or not we should be colluding in it at all?

Let’s accept that due to the banking crisis of 2007/8 something had to be done. Funds had to be raised from somewhere to service the debt. The big question was where. The problem for many is that it appears that the government’s answer is that the poor and most vulnerable in our society - who were not responsible for the crisis - are the ones being made to pay.

The late author Iain Banks summed the situation up nicely when he said: “Your society's broken, so who should we blame? Should we blame the rich, powerful people who caused it? No, let's blame the people with no power and no money and these immigrants who don't even have the vote – yeah, it must be their fucking fault."

So the Coalition Government used the crisis as an excuse to further extend the neo-liberal project that has been going on for the past 30 plus years, an excuse to privatise the public services and cut workers rights. There have been the cuts to welfare for the poorest but no cuts to welfare for the richest – eg tax credits continue to provide a subsidy to big companies who refuse to pay living wages. Then there are the greedy landlords who push up rents and trouser most of the housing benefit needed to meet the bills

*The banks have been bailed out time and time again, via direct subsidies and via the likes of quantative easing and the funding for lending scheme. All have been used to bolster up balance sheets. This welfare has been nicely punctuated by ongoing scandals from libor fixing to payment protection mis-selling.

*Workers have been made to pay with lower wages, worse terms and conditions. Justice has been denied by raising costs to go to the likes of employment tribunals – all done in the name of competition or in layman’s language to allow bad employers to exploit their workers ever more easily. If we accept that there was a debt that needed to be paid there are other places and people who could have taken a bigger share –

*There are 88 billionaires in UK, up from 53 in 2009. The top 1,000 richest people in UK now have £450 billion of wealth. The top 200 have £318.2 billion. The top 1,000 have increased their wealth by £150 billion plus in the past three years. How much tax do they pay?

*HMRC estimates that in 2010/11 it was deprived of £9.6 billion in VAT, with £3.3 billion in excise duties, and £14.4 billion in income tax revenues, national insurance contributions and capital gains tax. The HMRC say that the tax gap for the whole economy amounted to £32 billion in 2010/11 or a third of the deficit of £120 billion for 2012/13.

* What of the companies who pay little tax. Starbucks paid £8.6m in corporation tax over 14 years of trading in Britain, and none for the past three years, despite sales of £1.2bn in the UK. Starbucks pays a royalty to its parent company in the Netherlands, which offsets profits here. Amazon reported turnover of £207m in 2011 for its UK operation, on which it paid tax of £1.8m. However, £3.35bn of its sales were from the UK, 25 per cent of all sales outside the United States. Its profits are booked in Luxembourg, where the tax is paid. Google recorded revenues of £396m in 2011 in the UK and paid corporation tax of only £6m. However it is estimated that Google actually had £2.75bn of revenue from its operations in the UK with an estimated pre-tax profit of £836m. Google’s profits are registered in Ireland.

Other areas that could prove fruitful for those looking to save money are overseas military adventures like that undertaken in Afghanistan. Some £37 billion has been spent on war in Afghanistan. It is proposed to spend billions more in renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. So there are other areas where funds can be obtained to pay the deficit.

The decision to cut as this government has done was quite deliberate – it amounted to making a preferential option for the rich. I would question the way that our Church has accepted the government’s approach, it should have questioned it on faith and moral grounds. We need to return to Catholic Social Teaching. Take a look at concepts like the Common Good.

I’d argue that the Church hierarchy are looking at the common good more from the viewpoint of the boardroom and the owners of capital than the mass of humanity. From our position as Christians the Common Good should look at what economic decisions mean for the dignity of the human person. This would include the welfare of a person’s family, the effects on the environment and the community as a whole, not just the bottom line and how much profit has been accrued in a financial year.

Let’s take an example – the privatisation of Royal Mail (RM). What this is likely to mean in human terms. There will be job losses and worst terms and conditions for workers. Presently, RM staff get a wage of around £20k, not high but a steady wage. They get paid leave and can take time off sick. What privatisation will mean is joining the race to the bottom. The competitors in the market have staff on casual contracts, with no guarantee of hours, pay at minimum wage level and no holidays or sick pay. How does reducing RM workers terms and conditions down to these levels work for the common good? How does this help the family? It may provide more profit but how does it contribute to the dignity of the human person and common good of society? And we haven’t even touched on what will happen to the service to rural areas etc?

What is our Church’s position on privatisation? The exploitative nature of the employment relationship where workers are not represented by a trade union should be a cause of constant concern to our Church as should the polarisation of wealth towards the few.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that between 1977 and 2008 the wage share fell from 59 per cent of national income to 53 per cent, while the share of profits rose from 25 per cent to 29 per cent Trade unions rarely get mentioned in the Church discourse.

There is also the growing incidences of in work poverty, coming about as a result of forcing people into low paid work.

* 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.

So we need to go back to CST to see what it says in terms of poverty and the austerity agenda. So what is the Church doing? Well there is the excellent work of organisations like CSAN, Housing Justice, Anchor House, Pact, CAFOD and the NJPN. There is the practical work via the likes of the foodbanks, refugee and homeless shelters but what of that voice of justice.

This brings us onto what should the Church be doing? What is needed is a multi-faceted approach. The need must be met but charity and justice need to come together. Support the foodbank yes but don’t forget to ask the question why are they needed in the 5th largest economy in the world, with increasing numbers of billionaires and millionaires? We need a proper critique of justice in the workplace, issues like privatisation, taxation and poverty. Working for the common good is not the same as working for the maximum profit of a company or enterprise.

The need to work for justice brings us onto the state of the J&P network. At present, it is under attack. The loss of J&P workers, funding shortage, lack of people coming through into networks. An ageing movement. There is a need for NJPN to look at itself. There is a need for a change of structures. Formation needs prioritising. Change has to be from the bottom up, strengthen the networks and make the hierarchy change – they are innately conservative so unlikely to provide any sort of radical lead.

At grass roots level, more needs to done to bring people into J&P. There needs to be linkage with the unions and progressive parties, like Labour and the Greens. Other campaigning organisations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International, CAFOD and Oxfam can provide good partnerships in broadening the appeal. The linkage with community organising groups like Citizens UK and London Citizens needs developing. The movement needs to resist the desire to disappear into its own comfortable silo of like minded Catholics. It needs to broaden and build alliances inside and outside the Church.

This new agenda would see the Church rediscover its prophetic voice on poverty in this country but also for the real politic practioners at the Bishops Conference it would also extend the Church influence in that public square. The Church would have a bigger say if there were a thought out serious critique of the economic approach that is causing hurt and suffering to so many people. A church speaking for the common good on issues effecting everybody’s daily lives – a Church dare I say it relevant to the papacy of Pope Francis.  

*Presentation given at the annual general meeting of the Hexham and Newcastle J&P co-ordinating committee on Saturday 26 October

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