Friday, 28 November 2014

Church must rethink its approach to world of work

The accusation has been made that the leadership of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is more at home in the boardroom than on the shop floor.  The accusers question that while Cardinal Vincent Nichols contributes to the CBI “great business debate”, citing his own “Blueprint for Business” initative – begun in 2012 – what is the equivalent on the workers side. There is certainly no one from the Bishops Conference of England and Wales addressing the Trade Union Congress, like the late Bishop John Jukes did for so many years.

It is important to remember that it is the workers who produce the profits with their labour, something repeatedly pointed out in Catholic Social Teaching since the ground breaking Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” (1891). The same encyclical made clear the disparity in power indices between worker and employer, requiring the existence of trade unions to balance up the situation. This inequality in the modern age was further developed by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Laborem Excercens – “On Human Work” (1981).

Today, Cardinal Nichols has identified some of the appalling working conditions that exist in this country.  “We know that working conditions exist today, in this city, which are not far from effective slavery, as well as the presence of extensive de facto slavery too. It is right to struggle against these outrageous conditions, just as it is right to seek to work with those who share a desire to develop a healthy ecology of enterprise in our society today,” said the Cardinal, delivering his homily at the mass to mark the 125th anniversary of the Great London Docks strike.  

He has also condemned the zero hours culture that has grown as more and more people are forced into insecure low paid work. “Zero hours contracts offer no reliable hours and therefore no guaranteed income. The practical virtues of planning expenditure, purchasing intelligently and avoiding debt really are difficult in a situation like that,” said Cardinal Nichols.

The Church has also majored on the living wage campaign, playing a leading role along with community organisers like Citizens UK and the trade unions in getting this standard adopted. Many Church organisations have adopted living wage criteria themselves.

The role of the Church in the living wage campaign certainly offers a beacon of good practice for how its relationship with business and labour could be developed. I recall sitting in an old church hall in the East End of London in 2005, with Sir John Bond, then the chair of HSBC, together with the then Bishop of Brentwood Thomas McMahon, representatives from community organisers London Citizens and a number of priests.

The debate went to and fro. HSBC were being asked to sign up to the living wage pledge, whereby they would ensure than no worker was paid less than the living wage for their labour. Sir John was not willing at the time to concede, quoting the amount that the bank gave to charity. However, the seed had been sown. A mixture of meetings and actions in HSBC branches by London Citizens led to the bank signing up as a living wage employer. This type of process was taken with a whole raft of employers, all of whom now form the basis of the growing living wage movement.

The Church in this context was playing a direct role campaigning for social justice with civil society organisations – including trade unions – as well as  providing witness by adopting the living wage in churches, schools and other institutions.

The living wage campaign had arisen from mainly Catholic members of London Citizens, who fed back that their low wages were destroying family life. The low wages of the likes of security guards and cleaners meant they were having to do more than one job to keep their families above the poverty line. This was not good for family life or the common good. The living wage campaign resulted, bringing beneficial results for workers and employers in the longer term.

 It would be good to see this kind of methodology being adopted in initiatives like the Blueprint for Business. The Blueprint seeks to get businesses to sign up to the five principles of honesty, good citizenship, having a purpose that delivers long term sustainable performance, being a responsible employer and guardianship for future generations. They are good aspirations but would most businesses not sign up to these?

Surely more measurable indicators would provide a greater test. So businesses could be required to commit to collective bargaining, trade union recognition, the living wage, closing wage gap between employers and workers, outlawing zero hours contracts and shorter working weeks. The companies should be required to pay their tax in this country. These criteria have resonance with the concept of the common good as defined in Catholic Social Teaching.

Acting CEO of Blueprint Charles Wookey has offered assurances that some exacting standards are being developed to ensure that participating companies are behaving ethically but there is some way to go.

However, the Church’s role in relation to the workplace goes way beyond Blueprint.  We should hear more from the Church about zero hours contracts culture, the growth of bogus self-employment, the growing number of part time workers (most of whom want full time work) and the growth in the number of people in work receiving benefits. None of these recent developments in the workplace are conducive to the common good and family life.

Perhaps it is time that the world of work committee or some equivalent within the Caritas Social Action Network were set up. This would provide a source of expertise for the bishops to draw upon and feel confident when they commented on the world of work.

There should also be moves made to develop a similar dialogue with trade union leaders to that which already exists with business leaders (via Blueprint and the CBI). It is one of the great ironies that so many of the leaders of the trade union movement in the UK received their formation as Catholics. These include TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, GS of PCS Mark Serwotka and GS of the Communication Workers Union Billy Hayes. The unions would welcome an approach from the Church if it were made in good faith, with an intent to treat the workers on an equal footing with employers.

So there is much to be done by the Church in the world of work. It is a critical area, in which most people spent huge amounts of their time. Work defines so many elements of life that it is simply not good enough for Church to ignore the terrain altogether or worse still just talk to one side.
*Article draws on presentation made at the Tablet Table of 20th November - debate with Charles Wookey, CEO of Blueprint and others

- Published - Independent Catholic News - 28/11/2014 

Government has selective hearing when it comes to intelligence service anti-terror counsel

Why is it that when the intelligence services ask for more anti-terrorism powers the politicians obey but when the same agencies warn that Britain’s involvement in foreign wars increases the terror threat at home they get completely ignored.

* Independent - 28/11/2014

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Not About Heroes

This excellent production of Stephen MacDonald’s “Not about Heroes” tracks the relationship between poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The two men first met at Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland in 1917.

Sassoon had been sent to the hospital to silence his criticisms of the war. A decorated officer he became increasingly critical of the war, which he believed was being deliberately prolonged.

Owen is just pleased to be able to meet his writing hero face to face. The story unfolds, as it becomes clear that the student will soon outstrip his master when it comes to the art of poetry.  

Ben Ashton gets the body language of Owen spot on, the nervousness in the presence of the master, then a growing confidence as the two men develop a mutual understanding and affection.

James Howard plays the more confident Sassoon with an air of Noel Coward about him. He goes through the full ambit of emotions from joy at the success of his friend to feelings of guilt as to whether he should have done more to prevent Owen returning to the front where he is killed a week before the Armistice.

Not about Heroes is a fascinating play that centres around the relationship between the two men born out of poetry and the war. Both have a growing revulsion at the pointless loss of life and communicate through their poetry.

Some verse forms part of the dialogue, most notably Owen’s Anthem for Youth, but not so much that the whole thing just becomes about the poetry. The play marks a flowering of creative youth being celebrated against the dark backdrop of bloody war.

Both Sassoon and Owen returned to the front from Craiglockhart, the former being shot in the head but surviving. Owen was not so fortunate but the body of poetry he left at the age of just 24 amounts to more than most achieve in several lifetimes. The messages of that poetry are as relevant to our world today as they were to the fields of France 100 years ago.

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Friday, 14 November 2014

Compelling drama State Red addresses police killings in unique way

The excellent play, State Red, takes an original approach to deaths in police custody. The ingenius plot involving just four actors, revolves around the shooting of a black man by a black man, only the one doing the shooting is a police officer. Atiha Sen Gupta’s story starts when the shooter, Luke, returns home after a year away. During that time, he has been to see the family of the man he killed. He returns to a scene where his parents and best friend, and fellow police officer, Mathew, are returning from a police event – his father is going to be confirmed as commissioner the next day. The different layers of the play then address a myriad of issues, including police canteen culture, the hurt and suffering of the family of the dead man and perhaps uniquely the damage done to the police officer who did the shooting.

The play gets right below the surface of an ongoing issue in our society, which shows no sign of resolution, with more than 1,000 people dying in police custody since 1990. Families continue to lose loved ones and police officers continue to fail to be brought to account – the result more deaths. Even when inquest juries bring in unlawful killing verdicts nothing seems to happen. State Red addresses the issue in a truly unique way, bringing together so many elements of the problem in dramatic form. The only qualification is that I have never met a policeman like the character Luke but then maybe that is the point.

There are excellent performances from Samuel Anderson (of Dr Who fame), Maxine Finch, Geoff Leesley and Toby Wharton. Atiha Sen Gupta has certainly produced a great follow up to her debut play, What Fatima Did, which was performed at the Hampstead Theatre in 2009. State Red has been three years in gestation, no doubt drawing on the shooting by police of Mark Duggan in London in 2011 and subsequent events. This is a play well worth seeing, if you enjoy contemporary cutting edge drama dealing with real issues of social justice in today’s world.

*State Red plays at the Hampstead Theatre until 6 December



Wednesday, 12 November 2014

No need for drama on UKIP government - we're living it today

There is reportedly a drama being made for screening next year depicting Britain under a UKIP government. This does seem a bit of a waste of time, given that as far as I can see we already are living under such a regime.
The Tory Coalition follows UKIP policy to the letter with its anti-immigrant, anti-EU and anti-wind turbines positions.
Maybe the drama should develop what life under a Tory/UKIP government will look like in the longer term – skills shortages, low paid insecure work, rising unemployment, riots due to crushing poverty and the lights going out due to mismanagement of energy resources. The new scapegoats replacing immigrants in this brave new world will probably be the elderly

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Unjust world is insult to those who gave their tomorrows for our todays

One great sadness of remembrance is recalling how so many millions gave their lives for a better world that has never come to be. So today, the 85 richest people control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.  In this country, there are around 100 billionaires, whilst a million go to foodbanks. Billions are wasted on weapons systems like Trident, whilst millions struggle across the globe for the basics of life like water.

In the meantime, people vote for parties committed to the sort of intolerant policies on Europe and immigration that caused so many to go to fight in the world wars. The sad conclusion is that they may have given their tomorrows for our todays but we squander and insult that legacy by the way we behave today.

* published - Independent - 13/11/2014
Ilford Recorder and Wanstead and Woodford Guardian - 13/11/2014

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Business taking Church for mugs in blueprint process

The real danger of the Blueprint for Better  Business process is that the Church could be being used as a fig leaf by corporations which in reality carry on with business as usual.

The five principles: be honest, be a good citizen, have a purpose, be responsive and be a guardian are not exactly challenging concepts – most businesses would sign up, if for no other reason than corporate profile.

Many would have more belief if the businesses in question signed up to some measurable changes such as commitment to collective bargaining and trade union recognition, a living wage, closing the pay gap between directors and workers, the outlawing of zero hour contracts and working toward shorter working weeks. The companies could also pay their taxes in this country.

The total lack of any representation in the blueprint process from the workers who actually produce the profits is a very basic flaw. One incidentally that is easily detectable, given a cursory reading of Catholic Social Thought on the relations between workers and employers. The occasional trade unionist has been invited along to make up the numbers on the odd panel but there has never been a proper platform provided for those who represent millions in this country.

If the business leaders really do find British trade union leaders so repellent, then maybe a German trade union leader could be invited. In Germany, the trade unions play a key role in partnership with business, working together for the common good. Maybe a German business leader as well to confirm and expand on that perspective.

The worry with the Blueprint process is that it comes over as a one sided exercise that the Church has been naively drawn into by business. If it is to continue and have meaning the process must be widened beyond a small clique of business leaders whose primary aim is no doubt self-interest.

* published in Tablet - 8/11/2014 

Friday, 7 November 2014

Cardinal Nichols attacks zero hours culture and children growing up in poverty

Cardinal Vincent Nichols has attacked the zero hours culture and increasing numbers of children growing up in poverty.

Addressing the fourth annual Caritas Social Action Network Parliamentary reception, Cardinal Nichols attacked a zero hours culture that provides “no reliable hours and therefore no guaranteed income.”
“The practical virtues of planning expenditure, purchasing intelligently and avoiding debt really are difficult in a situation like that,” said Cardinal Nichols. “Others remain on the minimum wage, with no opportunity for wage progression in their working environment. And despite good news on employment figures, there is still a gap for many between achievable incomes and general basic living costs.”
Previously Cardinal Nichols had expressed his support for a living wage, with Church employers now seeking to ensure that such levels of paid are maintained. Recent research from KPMG found that five million people in Britain (22% of the workforce) were being paid less than the living wage.)
“We know and everyone here acknowledges that most people want to get over the problems in their lives and seek and hold a job – a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families. They know that work is an expression of their dignity. It provides contact with others; it helps their health and spirit as well as their living expenses. And its reward should be a just wage,” said Cardinal Nichols, who underlined that “work is a person’s capital and should be treated with the same respect and protection as every other form of capital, be it property or wealth.”
He then lamented that "a significant number of children are growing up in poverty, despite having at least one parent in work."
Secretary of State for Communities Eric Pickles declared that it was "impossible to think about social care without a vibrant Catholic caring network."
Pickles though noted the irritation caused in government by the criticism from the Church about the bedroom tax and the growing use of foodbanks.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Food banks must not become institutionalised in a land of billionaires

The news of a rising number of people using the foodbank in Waltham Forest mirrors what is happening across the country.

The question that should be asked is why in a country of more than 100 billionaires are more than a million people going to foodbanks.

The growing use of foodbanks runs hand in hand with an austerity agenda that has seen the pay of the directors of the FTSE 100 companies going up by 21% in the past year (Income Data Services), compared to 2% for the rest of the population.

The last five years has seen a visible shift of more than a million people from secure reasonably paid work into low paid insecure work. It is these developments in the workplace compounded by cuts to benefits that have forced more and more people toward foodbanks. How can this be situation acceptable in such a rich society?

There is the danger that the foodbank will become institutionalised as they have in Canada, where 20 years ago they began to dismantle the welfare state in a similar way to what has been occurring in this country.

Foodbanks were introduced as a stop gap, yet today they are more prevalent than ever in Canada. It is good to support foodbanks but we must never lose sight of the question as to why in such a rich countries they need to exist in the first place?

* published Wanstead and Woodford Guardian - 30/10/2014