Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christmas break

I shall be having a wee break from blogging during the Christmas and New Year festivities. I wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and all the best for the coming New Year.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Neuroimaging as evidence?

Can technology be so advanced that our thoughts can be seen by other people? Apparently , brain scans using neuromagnetic resonance imaging can explicitly project unto a computer screen an individual’s thought patterns. The Scottish Universities Insight Institute has recently presented a report on the current applications of neuroimaging in a variety of fields. The Church of Scotland, through the Society, Religion and Technology Project, has been involved in the development of this report .

The fact that other people can see our thought patterns raises a number of questions; who will have access to the data from people’s brain scans? How will that data be interpreted? How will the interpretations of brain activities be used? The difficulty is that although this technology was developed for use in a clinical context it is now being used as evidence in criminal trials, although the technology has not yet been properly tested and tried in non-medical contexts. It is not unusual to have technologies applied outside the context for which they were originally developed, take the computer; it was intended to be used as a gigantic calculator. The difference here is that the application of neuroimaging as evidence in criminal cases has been introduced without proper legislative frameworks. There is a real danger that vulnerable groups could become victims to the misuse of brain imaging. Other areas of potential misuse are for insurance applications and pre-employment interviews.

This is why I wrote to MSPs urging them to support the motion proposed by Helen Eadie, MSP for a parliamentary debate on the legislative framework for the use of brain imaging.

Let us hope we can have a proper debate which incorporates not just scientists and lawyers, but ordinary folk as well.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Scottish contribution for Climate Change leadership

The Cancun Climate change conference has finished with what has been hailed by some, as the roaring of a chihuahua. It was good to see that the science behind climate change has stopped being disputed. There is global recognition that climate change “is one of the greatest challenges of our time” and that the need to engage in action to curb greenhouse gas emissions is urgent.

One of the primary objectives of the talks was to establish mechanisms by which developing countries could be helped in mitigating the effects of climate change. The agreement allows for the establishment of a climate fund managed by the UN, however, there are no specific cash promises attached. There is also agreement on the creation of a forestry programme dedicated to forestry conservation.

Much about the specifics of both agreements are still to be worked out. The details of the financial and technology transfer commitment of rich nations to contribute towards climate change mitigation in developing countries will be discussed at the next conference of the parties to be held in South Africa in 2011.

The Kirk is committed to helping congregations respond to climate change issues. the Moderator, the Right Reverend John Christie met David Cameron on the first day of the Conference in Mexico, urging him to fully engage with Cancun 2010. Although international development funding is primarily a UK Government responsibility we in Scotland can continue to set an example by reducing our own carbon footprint to meet the challenging targets of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act. This would be no mean achievement.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Is tax avoidance socially responsible?

Tax avoidance is getting on the nerves of people I certainly oppose violent actions against retailers but it is crucial to recognise that tax avoidance might be legal, but it is not an ethical business practice. I previously blogged on the fact that £9 in every £100 that should be paid in taxes goes missing people people and corporations are very efficient at avoiding tax.

The commissioning by the Coalition Government of a study into a General Anti Avoidance Rule (GAAR) is certainly a step in the right direction but overall, the deliberate choice of ethical practices as part and parcel of daily business practices by all our corporations is what we should be encouraging.

Corporations have a social responsibility to the communities where they operate. What they do, impacts at home and abroad. This is why the Church of Scotland is supporting Christian Aid’s Trace the Tax campaign highlighting the effects of tax avoidance on developing countries.

Adherence to tax legislation is of course compulsory, but corporate social responsibility goes beyond that. It is actually a new business model where becoming a part of the community is seen as a business opportunity. These ideas are not pie in the sky. Several companies such as Marks and Spencer’s or IPC Media (publishers of some of our favourite magazines) are actively involved in one or all of the main areas of corporate social responsibility : the environment, the marketplace, the workplace and the community.

A business model based on corporate social responsibility makes corporations intricately involved in the sustainability of the communities in which they do business. In the short term it might seem profitable and simpler to relocate corporate headquarters to a tax haven; however, in the long term such practices damage the sustainability of any economy. Damaging our economy by evading taxes undermines our economic recovery. That is surely bad business.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The plight of Pakistani Christians

Asia Bibi is a Pakistani Christian woman who was arrested in June 2009, accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad by Muslim farm workers following a dispute over their different faiths. She was prosecuted under Section 295 of the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan and has spent the last year and a half in prison. On the 8th of November of this year, she was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Since 1991 anyone found guilty under Section 295 (C) of the Pakistan Penal Code faces a mandatory death sentence.

The problem is that the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan is being abused to settle scores, exact revenge or inflame religious extremism. Within Pakistan itself, there are voices opposing the death sentence of Asia Bibi. Shabaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities, has been quoted saying, “She was wrongly sentenced to death.” Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab was quoted saying, "This is a disgraceful case, it is a disgraceful law. It has to be repealed."

The Church of Scotland has connections with the land that became Pakistan that go back to 1857. Our partnership with the Church of Pakistan continues to develop and deepen. Our partners in Pakistan have visited Asia in jail and have urged people to pray and lobby for her release. This is why, Andrew McLellan, the Convener of the World Mission Council and I have written to His Excellency Mr. Wajid Shamsul Hasan, the Pakistan High Commissioner urging the Government of Pakistan to release and pardon Asia Bibi and to ensure that she and are family are protected from those who would seek to take the law into their own hands.

The Church of Scotland also urges the Government of Pakistan to repeal the Blasphemy Law since it appears to be used to intimidate and terrorise minority faith communities in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This goes against the traditions and teachings of Islam and is contrary to the culture of the majority of Pakistanis.

Friday, 3 December 2010

widening the debate on end of life issues

As the Church opposed the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill which was rejected the day before yesterday in a free vote by the Scottish Parliament, I am pleased with the outcome of the debate. Our MSPs voted freely according to their conscience and their conscience dictated that the procedure to end life contained in the proposed legislation was not the way forward. Their vote reflected the views of medical practitioners, people with disabilities as well as other ordinary folk who campaigned arduously through their churches or voluntary organisations to let their voices be heard. The Bill was thoroughly examined with over 50 people giving evidence and contributing to a lively and informed debate. This was much to the credit of Margo MacDonald.

Although the Bill has been defeated, the examination of the issues around the end of life has only just begun. There is a need for us as a society to examine issues surrounding the meaning of “quality of life” particularly when physical pain and progressive illness occurs. We need to examine our own expectations surrounding the intrinsic value of human life; we also need to confront our frailty and our mortality. I shall be exploring some of these items in the upcoming edition of the Sunday Express. Those who supported Margo’s Bill need to know that their concerns have not been taken lightly.

As a society, we need to address the availability of resources to support the emotional, spiritual and physical needs of those reaching the end of their lives with dignity.

The Bill was defeated. Let the wider debate begin.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A passion to help

It is enough to lighten up a cold November wintry day. Young folk in Bo’ness responded to a call from St Andrew’s  Church to come and help out old folk and people who are stranded in their houses unable to get out because of the weather conditions.

Lilias Snedden, youth worker at St Andrew’s and Bo’ness community councillor, sent a few text messages and was inundated by the response and offers of help. Twenty young folk are doing a spot of grocery shopping, digging cars out and clearing pathways in Bo’ness. This is what true community spirit is all about. This is precisely the type of Scotland that we should all be striving to achieve. Well done Bo’ness; I would love to hear  more stories of young people with a passion to help and of people being just plain good caring neighbours.

On Sectarianism

I am sad to see that sectarianism and bigotry have risen its ugly head in our nation again. The roots of these forms of behaviour go far back into our history and some would even say that they form an endemic part of our culture. I reject that viewpoint. The Scotland I want to be part of is not one that nurtures its sectarian past as something good.

Banter at the expense of other people is simply not humour; it is disguised aggression and it should be condemned and stopped. Gratuitous discriminatory behaviour must not be part of our present as Scots and it is definitely not a legacy that should be passed unto our children. Everyone living and visiting our fair city has the right to walk and attend events undisturbed, regardless of the colour of their skin, their religion or the colours they support. From an individual perspective, nobody wants family members to be the victims of sectarianism; this is why we should all refuse to engage in it. Some within the Protestant community might not want to see the Church of Scotland standing beside our Catholic Colleagues but I stand behind the right of anyone to live, worship and socialize within a city that embraces peace and respect.

Less than five years ago the then Scottish Executive, now Scottish Government addressed the issue of sectarianism and developed a number of campaigns against it. It is clear that education and respect for the other are a big part of the answer to this type of problem.

Surely Scotland has moved on from this sad part of its past;  if not, its time it did!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The debate on the End of Life Assistance Bill planned for this Thursday at Holyrood this Thursday has been postponed to December 1st. The Bill,  has been examined by the Bill Committee.  It is really encouraging that Committee has found that our current law does not require any change or modification. In other words, the Committee was not persuaded that the law should decriminalize those assisting suicide or voluntary euthanasia.

However, it is very important that our MSPs recognise that the proposed legislation put forward by Margo MacDonald would endorse the deliberate ending of a human life and would undermine us as a society. This is why I have written to MSPs urging them to oppose this Bill.

As a society, we should recognise the necessity to ensure that as far as possible, all have access to good palliative care. This involves caring not just for the physical but also for the emotional and spiritual needs of people coming towards the end of their lives. I do hope the Bill gets a spirited debate on Wednesday the first of December and that it concludes with a resounding opposition.

Friday, 19 November 2010

How to evaluate governmental policies: equality or fairness?

There is much talk on equality and fairness in the press now-a-days. Both are difficult concepts to define and measure so I searched for definitions. This is what I got:

- Equality: the condition of being unequal
- Fairness: concerns equality of opportunity; in conformity with rules or standards.
So it seems that to talk about fairness without addressing inequality is quite simply nonsense because within the definition of fairness is the notion of equality. Which brings us to the following question: Under which conditions should public policy actions be evaluated: fairness or equality? This is at the core of the debate on welfare reform.

The Equality Act was centred on making public bodies demonstrate that they had assessed the impact of their decisions on disadvantaged populations. In other words, public bodies had to demonstrate that their actions were not contributing to making our society more unequal. Although some might consider those impact assessments an expensive tick-box exercise, the spirit behind them Act is not.

Inequality matters. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of the Spirit Level found evidence that many social problems are rooted in inequality. The UK is a deeply unequal society. The latest Wealth in Great Britain report published last year revealed big regional divisions in the distribution of wealth amongst households; the wealthiest being located in the south east of England and the poorest in Scotland. Fifty two percent of Scotland’s most deprived areas are in Glasgow. According to OECD data the UK has high levels of income inequality when compared to other industrialised nations. The inequality is not just pay differentials, it also shows in the school readiness of children from poorer families when compared to those of richer families.

The scrapping of the requirement to assess the implications of the actions of public bodies on deprived pockets of our society is based on the assumption that these bodies will do so voluntarily. This assumption raises some disturbing questions. Does, our government really want its public institutions to be free of the duty to assess the consequences of their actions? Is it wise to assume that in a climate of financial restraint, organisations will act altruistically? The proof of this assumption shall be in the pudding.

I would like to propose the following test for fairness. I contend that we will live in a fair society when everyone earns enough to provide for their families’ basic needs. We will live in a fair society when everyone can save for emergencies and to invest in assets, like a home, or an expanded business, or for their retirement. We will live in a fair society when households have some equity to help them weather difficult times and to realistically aspire for better times in the future.

I agree with the statement that it is not possible for any society to guarantee equality of outcomes; however it is possible to govern to achieve equality of opportunities. Then and only then can the outcomes of governmental policies be considered fair

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Housing the Dispossessed

I am very distressed at the decision of the UK Border Agency to relocate 600 refugee households. This decision has apparently been takes as a result of the termination of the contract with Glasgow City Council to house these people.

Letters have apparently been sent to 600 households advising them that they will be given 3-5 days notice to move from their homes. Each household will be allowed to take two pieces of luggage per person, plus baby equipment, children’s toys and disability aids. This action will effectively mean the potential removal at extremely short notice of 1,311 people from their current homes to undisclosed destinations within Scotland.

From a psychological perspective, this action can have devastating effects on people who are already very vulnerable. It will also affect children who will have to be taken away from their school, their friends and their local connections. Many of these people have already had to suffer forced, sometimes violent uprooting, fleeing their countries through fear for their lives. Another forced uprooting can have dire consequences. Refugee families and their children are not objects that can be stashed or shifter about at the stroke of a pen. They are human beings and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect irrespective of the place where they happened to be born.

Positive Action in Housing has written to the Prime Minister asking him to intervene in the negotiations between Glasgow City council and the UKL Border Agency. The Kirk is entirely in support of this action. Moreover, as a minister within a community which is working actively with asylum seekers, I encourage everyone to be present at the protest which will take place on Brand Street in Govan the 20th of November supporting the refugees against this appalling action.

The poor are major stakeholders in the welfare reform debate

There has been a lot of talk about trying to instil a job culture on the long-term unemployed. The proposals from the UK Government seem to me to be based on the assumption that people living in poverty do not have a culture of work and self development. This is rather puzzling, because many unemployed people held jobs at some point in their lives. It would be useful to find out why they are no longer in paid work. The Church’s experience, gathered through our long-term involvement working in deprived areas in Scotland as well that of organisations like Faith in Community Scotland and the Poverty Truth Commission show that very many people who are not working would love to do so. We are also aware of the huge contribution which many so called unemployed people already make as carers and volunteers. This evidence does not tally with the image of fraud, job-aversion, and job-shyness presented by those in government arguing for punitive approaches and draconian cuts to the welfare system. I believe this is a misrepresentation of the reality of poverty and have joined church leaders across the UK in pointing out that the poor are currently not being heard and their reality has not been addressed by policy makers.

Sometimes it is hard to understand something that you have never experienced yourself. This is why, in partnership with Martin Johnstone of the Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission, we have invited Mr Osborne to come and talk to members of the Commission in order to hear first hand their stories of struggle and survival in poverty. Who knows? Some really creative and dignity enhancing back-to-work schemes might be the outcome of such an encounter.

Anyone who currently holds a job, could face the misfortune of being unemployed and on benefits. Unemployment is a misfortune and people should be treated with dignity in their efforts to regain employment. It is well recognised that effective solutions to problems need to have the direct involvement of all stakeholders. People who are unemployed and those who are poor are undoubtedly major stakeholders in any welfare reform proposals; they are also voters. Have they been consulted?

Friday, 12 November 2010

The ethics of persuasive technologies

Only a few days ago I was blogging about the areas where science religion and technology can benefit from an inner dialogue and today I became even more aware of the need to promote this type of dialogue. The Church and Society Council presented a paper addressing ethical questions on internet advertising practices during an event at the Scottish Parliament sponsored by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce . Why would the Kirk be invited to speak on the ethics of online advertisement?

The internet is allowing everyone to have increased access to educational opportunities, online services, shopping and entertainment. We do not even need a computer anymore; smart mobile phones allow you to access a world of consumer choice and online services. However, online selling and advertising have entered totally new grounds in their adoption of persuasive technologies. In the case of e-commerce these technologies allow online retailers to gather information about your likes and dislikes when you shop online, and present you with ever more tempting offers based on what you have looked at on the internet. Your past viewing and online shopping activities allow online retailers to present you with newer and better tailored personalised offers in the hope of getting you to part (yet again…) with your money. Many advocate that shopping is the way out of the recession. However, I wonder if this is the economic model that we should follow. Everything we buy carries a carbon footprint therefore, we might be encouraging our economy through shopping but we are also contributing to the demise of our planet.

There is also privacy issue; who has given the right to online retailers to access the information of what I have viewed on a search engine? Who owns the information of thousands of internet users, happily using keywords on search engines? Do online retailers and search engines have the right to commercialise with this information? Is it ethical to use targeted consumer behavioural information upon an unsuspecting public? Is this a case of Big Brother watching you, or simply, the birth of an ever better online retail therapy experience? These are some of the questions that the Kirk has been grappling with in the context of the use of persuasive technologies for e-commerce.

I often wonder whether Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the world-wide-web, fully realized the impact that his work at Cern in Switzerland would have on society.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A Christian perspective on scientific and technological developments

Many people associate religion as contrary to science. However, 40 years ago, the Kirk had the forethought to develop and finance the Society, Religion and Technology (SRT) project with the specific remit to examine and advice the Church of Scotland on the ethical and moral implication of technological and scientific advances.

Science and technology are ever changing. Advances in biological sciences or in digitalisation allow us to do things that were only science fiction when I was a child. Many of these advances pose acute ethical issues. Take for example the development of cloning, or issues surrounding genetically modified agriculture to name only a few.

Over the 40 years of its existence the SRT project has provided invaluable advice on topics right at the interchange between ethics and frontline research. Thanks to SRT’s foresight and the work of committed scientists, philosophers and theologians associated with the project last May I was able to write about the Kirk’s insight into developments in synthetic biology. We were the first religious institution to have addressed such a current topic and propose a Christian perspective.

I am therefore delighted to see that the SRT is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a conference at City Chambers in Edinburgh on the 20th of November. This conference will have distinguished scientists amongst the panel of speakers. In particular, I am quite keen to attend Prof. John Wyatt’s presentation on the ethical issues at the beginning and end of life. If anyone is interested in attending please send an email to this address.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The debate about Housing Benefits

I understand there is to be a debate in Westminster about housing benefits next week. I have written to all Scottish MPs not about the specifics of the debate but about the principles that I would want to see behind the debate. Welfare benefits are intended to alleviate poverty. A mark of any society is how it cares for the vulnerable. It is not possible for any society to guarantee equality of outcomes for all; it is however possible to achieve equality of opportunities. Any proposals for welfare reform which place barriers upon the ability of individuals and families to survive with dignity when they are in a vulnerable position undermine us as a society.

We are concerned about the apparent stigmatisation of those in receipt of benefits that is  emerging through a political discourse that associates error and fraud in immediate proximity to each other. I am concerned that this is being done deliberately and that the incidence of what are extreme cases is being used as a cover for reforms that harm those in need whose care is our moral duty as a society.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Christians and Muslims living together in respect

It is with great sorrow that I heard the news of the tragic outcome for the people taken hostage in Iraq.

Christianity has long and established roots in Iraq. In fact, there were Christians in Iraq well before there were any in the UK. It seems therefore paradoxical that after centuries of both faiths living together in relative harmony, violence and death have made the headlines again in Iraq.

Islam is the second largest religion in the UK and estimates place over 2 million Muslims living in the UK. My own city of Glasgow is home for over 30,000 Muslims, mostly of Pakistani origin and I am very proud to see that in my home town, there are ample examples of both Muslims and Christians actively working together to improve the living conditions of everyone in the city.

Take for example the work of the Multifaith Antipoverty Project where Christians and Muslims volunteers are being trained to become anti-poverty champions and within their communities; or the work of the Bridging the Gap project where Christian churches in conjunction with Muslim volunteers work together to provide services for refugees newly arriving to Glasgow; or the work of Faith in Community Scotland who work with members of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities to address issues of poverty and social inclusion in 38 of the poorest communities in Glasgow.

I strongly condemn interfaith violence. I believe that communities have a much better chance at getting to know each other if there are common issues that bind them. It is through working jointly on a common project and sharing common purposes that true communities and lasting friendships are built. May it always remain the case in Scotland.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The numbers behind benefit fraud

Benefit fraud is a serious offence and it has been continuously mentioned in speeches and announcements by the Coalition Government.

I certainly do not condone it and the Kirk is completely against fraudulent activities, but, the stress that is being placed on benefit fraud seems slightly out of proportion to the reality. Let us have a look at the data; for the financial year 2009-2010 the National Audit Office estimates fraud to be 0.6% of the Department of Work and Pensions benefits bill, while errors make up more than double this figure. Benefit fraud is estimated at £1 billion, and tax credit fraud is estimated at £0.6 billion, making a total of £1.6 billion.

However the Chancellor seems to have conflated benefit fraud and error during his speech announcing the Comprehensive Spending Review on October 20th 2010. He said:

“Nor will fraud in the welfare system be tolerated any more. We estimate that £5 billion a year is being lost in this way - £5 billion that others have to work long hours to pay in their taxes. This week we published our plans to step up the fight to catch benefit cheats and deploy uncompromising penalties when they are caught.”
How come £1.6 billion got metamorphosed into £5 billion? Has there been a mistake in the decimal point?

There seems to be a tendency to emphasise fraud when poverty and welfare reform are discussed. This often distracts attention from getting resources to those genuinely in need. This is truly unfortunate because our experience working in deprived communities is that life on benefits is often a struggle, with difficult and stressful financial choices being a daily occurrence. We believe this reality is not well reflected in government statements and should be at the heart of any debate on Welfare Reform.

I have therefore written together with a number of other church leaders to David Cameron calling on him to instruct the Chancellor to correct his statement of 20th October and that the publication ‘Tackling fraud and error in the benefit and tax credits systems’ published last week by the Department of Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs is similarly corrected, as it makes the same error.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Biomass power stations

Forth Energy has submitted planning applications to develop biomass powered energy plants in Dundee, Grangemouth, Leith and Rosyth. These power stations would be burning wood fuel to produce electricity. The joint electricity production of the plants is estimated to be up to 500M, which according to Forth Energy amounts to 14% of Scotland’s electricity demands. Forth Energy mentions the advantages of the proposed plants to the selected towns in terms of employment, training opportunities and a contribution to Scotland’s energy mix.

Biomass technology is already in use in a power station at Steven’s Croft, near Lockerbie so the technology seems to be well established. However there might be some questions concerning the sustainability of the scale of some of some of the proposed plants, or the fact that all of proposed plants are to be build in built-up areas. One area of particular concern can be the sourcing of the wood for burning. If most of the wood is going to be imported from abroad, what will be the carbon footprint attached to importing this wood for burning up in Scotland and what will be the impact on the communities where the wood is sourced? All of these are questions to be asked.

The Kirk has no objection to the biomass proposals submitted by Forth Energy since they are on the whole consistent with the views expressed by the General Assembly; however, these proposals have caused concern from a number of local groups including local congregations. Their concerns are listed in the Greener Leith website.

I would encourage everyone with an interest in these issues to get involved in the debate by asking questions, checking the websites listed, lobbying and using your vote.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Child Benefit Conundrum

Economic recessions have the consequence of pressuring governments into implementing austerity measures that sometimes produce contradictory results. This has clearly been the case for Chancellor George Osborne in the proposed measures to end child benefit after 2013 for families in which at least 1 earner pays 40% tax. The proposed measure has had the unforeseen effect of having some families with joint incomes way above the threshold remaining legally entitled to the benefit, whilst other families with only one salary above the threshold loosing the benefit. The Coalition Government will undoubtedly tinker with the proposed measure to make its effects less contradictory, but what is really at stake is the principle of universality.

Social benefits are intended to alleviate poverty and to soften the sharp edges of capitalism. Making some social benefits universal makes sure that all people get them. It is a simple way of ensuring that all mothers receive financial support without the hassle of forms and means-testing which may be overly complicated and inefficient. In the case of child benefit, this support costs the tax payer £11 billion a year and has been taken up by practically every mother in the UK.

Although some might suggest that the principle of universality is irrelevant in a financial crisis, I think exactly the opposite. Universal benefits send a very clear measure of what is valued within a society. In this case, a universal child benefit states that we are valuing our children, our future. It also states that we value the choice that families might make in deciding whether one family member can afford to stay at home to look after the children. Since it costs close to £200,000 to bring up a child parents must not be penalised by opting to remain at home to raise their children. Finally an attack on the universality of child benefits changes the concept of what we have been entitled to as citizens and residents of this country since WWII. This should not be done just as a cost-cutting measure and without due consultation.

Tax dodging

It was reported last month that £9 in every £100 that should have been paid for in taxes, actually goes missing because people, as well as corporations are very efficient at evading tax. In 2009 this amounted to an estimated £42 million. This is a tricky issue. Should we do everything we can to avoid participating to the costs a society that tries to be fair and provide for its most vulnerable members? Is tax dodging ethically defensible for individuals and corporations?

The question of immoral tax evasion and avoidance lead the Kirk in the General Assembly of May 2010, to study the issue further. I am delighted to see that Christian Aid will be issuing on Monday the 18th a report called “Paying our Dues” which explores the ways by which tax dodging punishes the poor. The Church and Society Council of the Kirk collaborated with Christian Aid in the report and fully supports its vision and philosophy.

As a Christian, I cannot but support the position that it is ethically appropriate to pay our fair dues to the running of the society in which we work, play and make our livelihood.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Leadership, Expertise and Prayers: The Rescued Miners in Chile

I am delighted to see that the miners who have been trapped in the San Esteban mine in the Atacama desert of Chile are being rescued today. It has been an amazing feat of human endurance, to withstand for 69 days in those conditions, and remain optimistic, and help each other survive. Respect and cooperation were the strategies adopted by foreman Luis Urzua, a veteran miner trapped amongst the 33 whose leadership was crucial.. Meagre resources were shared by all. I hesitate to think what their chances of survival would have been if the strongest amongst them would had monopolized resources in a selfish attempt for survival. The miners have taught us all a lesson in the value of respect and cooperation.

Many people have cooperated for this successful rescue. Jeff Hart, a driller from Denver, Colorado was taken away from drilling for water for the US army in Afghanistan to operate the T130drill that would eventually open up a hole large enough for the rescue operation to take place. Drilling for water or oil is not the same as drilling for lives, and Mr Hart, acknowledged the weight of responsibility as he expertly sensed the vibrations of the driller. Jean Romagnoli, a Chilean expert in sports medicine undertook the task of overseeing the men’s physical and psychological fitness. The families of the miners supported their loved ones sending encouraging messages through a video conferencing link. Churches throughout the world and particularly in Latin America organised prayer vigils and services.

Thank God for the combination of good leadership, professionalism, technical expertise, and prayers.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Azure Card, and survival as a failed asylum seeker

Imagine having to leave your country because of war, or violence, or threats to your life. Imagine arriving to the UK, a country which you think might offer you asylum. Imagine your asylum application refused. Imagine contemplating having to be sent back to whence you came from. Imagine the stress and anguish at having to be handed over to officials of the country you fled from. Imagine that you get ill just before you are sent back or you cannot be sent back because of the political situation in your country. Who are you now? You are now a failed asylum seeker under ‘section 4’.

What does this mean?

It means you will receive £35 a week per person as support towards your maintenance. The snag is that the money is not in cash, but locked in a prepaid “azure card” which is accepted at certain supermarkets and shops. Administratively, this sounds like a good idea, if lots of places take the card, there is choice and convenience.

The cards started its roll-out phase since 2009 in Scotland however, its implementation has not been as simple as it might have been expected. Supermarkets that are participating in the scheme are not always the most cost-effective places to buy food. On £35 a week, cheap food is really important. If you have dietary restrictions because of your faith, the food you can eat might not be stocked in the shops that take the card. The card also has restrictions on what you can buy… it is not accepted for transport, or clothes; in fact… it is not money.

To discuss this, and other issues relating to the problems of asylum seekers in Scotland, representatives from Glasgow Citizens for Sanctuary, have been seeking a meeting with Phil Taylor, the Regional Director for the Scotland and Northern Ireland Region, of the UK Border Agency. Despite earlier attempts, the meeting has not materialized. I only fear that in the current economic climate, the voices of those who live amongst us without the protection that UK citizenship awards will be unheard.

Citizens for Sanctuary search and have developed good working relations with UK Border Agency offices elsewhere, why not in Glasgow? Please, Mr Taylor, can you meet-up with these folk?

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Domestic Abuse in Scotland

Over 53,000 reported cases of domestic abuse were reported in Scotland in 2009. More current data is not yet available, but last year’s was already an increase of 8% over 2007. I was therefore happy to see that the Kirk presented a response to the Scottish Parliament on the consultation to Rhoda Grant’s Bill on Domestic Abuse. The Church of Scotland’s Guild has been heavily involved through its Scottish Women’s Convention in working towards improving the position of women in Scotland, and addressing issues of violence against women.

Domestic abuse is not a family spat; it is serious business where women and children have to cope with possible re-location, financial and psychological distress as well as physical violence. This does not mean that all who suffer from domestic abuse are women; there are reported cases of men suffering from this type of abuse, but the numbers are low in comparison.

In the current economic environment, with the extent of the proposed cuts becoming clearer by the day it is important to stress that not everyone will be capable of contributing to the reduction of the deficit. We are not all in this together; some are in such vulnerable positions, that it is not ethical to increase their burden any further. This is the case of victims of domestic abuse. The legal, medical and psychological needs of people in vulnerable positions, escaping their homes because of domestic abuse must be supported.

These people, although traumatized, gather the strength to escape the family home because they are protecting their children. The access to legal assistance is of paramount importance for their welfare and should be protected from cuts, even in these times of restraint.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Welfare Reform should mean Support with Dignity

I truly welcome the fact that the Kirk has been invited to respond to the consultation on 21st Century Welfare issued by the Coalition Government. With a church in every community, the Kirk has been at the centre of community involvement, getting the views of people living in poverty throughout Scotland. Through the work of Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission, we have had direct access to hear and learn from those that are struggling with poverty. This has informed our views on the need to get the involvement of those struggling with the issues on a daily basis, on any kind of measures directed towards helping them out of poverty. ‘Nothing about Us without Us is for Us.’

The Coalition Government proposes to simplify the benefits system. Aye to that. It also proposes to encourage people to move from the benefits system into paid employment. The welfare system is in place to help those in need. It is a resource that we all contribute into in order to provide help and support to the most vulnerable amongst us. Much has been said about the culture of dependence and the lifestyle choices of welfare recipients. In our experience, nearly all people that are able to work, want to and do so if work is available. There are many ways to contribute into society apart from paid employment. No one can dispute the valuable contribution done by thousands of people caring for children, or tending for a disabled relative; these unpaid contributions, amount to significant savings to the public purse.

Support with dignity is the key.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Fall is in the air

Believe it or not, I am off on a short break, back in a week.

Why can't the minimum price of alcohol be agreed upon?

Today the MSPs in the Scottish Parliament Health and Sport Committee debated the Government proposal to introduce a minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol and voted to delete this proposal from the Bill (Parliament report not yet available). The Church, alongside medical organisations, the police and voluntary sector organisations have been campaigning in support of this policy  so I am disappointed to hear that opposition parties remain unwilling to compromise in order to make progress on this key public health issue. Everyone agrees that action should be taken to combat the excessive drinking culture in our nation, so what is preventing our representatives from sitting round the table together and agreeing what can be done, by this Scottish Parliament, in this piece of legislation?”

On the business of medals

Yesterday I attended a debate at the Scottish Parliament about assisted suicide. In response to a highly provocative statement from Margo MacDonald, I made some comments that have caused a small media furore.

Margo stated that “the state gives soldiers medals for killing people”. This is not only an unfortunate metaphor to use in defence of assisted suicide; it is also not true. The State gives medals for bravery and valour in the field of battle. It is true that killing is involved in war situations, but it is not the killing that is being honoured.

The sanctity of life remains, whether in the theatre of war or the hospice. Death through war is tragic and our armed forces should be given every bit of moral support in the fulfilment of their duties. Only this week, I was in discussion with service chaplains about how to improve our delivery of pastoral care for those in the front line as well as for veterans. It is unfortunate that the press has chosen to report this wee spat and not the much more important issues that we had been discussing. Such is life!

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Mysteries of the Proposed Budget

I have followed with great interest recent statements from the Coalition Government concerning the proposed revised budget and there are things that remain persistently unclear.

It seems to be received wisdom that everyone must share the collective burden of the budget deficit. Who is precisely “everyone”? Does this mean children, sick people, the elderly, the homeless, those with mental disabilities? I think that it is a fascicle position to assign collective responsibility when it is clear that not everyone can share the burden. Where is our sense of justice if we demand of the most vulnerable within us to carry a disproportionately large share of the collective debt?

The other thing that remains mysterious is the issue of jobs. The public sector is being downsized and people are being made redundant. This appears to be done for ideological reasons as well as under the assumption that efficiency savings can be reaped. Some services will no longer be provided by the public sector on the expectation that the private sector will leap at the opportunity of developing services to fill in the gaps. Will the services provided by private companies be cheaper? Will they offer the same value for money than the publicly provided counterparts? How will they be paid? More importantly, how many jobs does the Coalition Government expect the private sector to furnish per region within the UK?

Amidst all of this uncertainty, I am certain of one thing; jobless people do not pay taxes, they consume them through social benefits. I am not questioning the need for dealing with the deficit; I am however, deeply uncomfortable that pressure from the financial sector should dictate the speed and the depth of the cuts.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

What is all of this Concordat business?

I am delighted to see that Action for Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS) will be hosting October 26, a conference where participants will be able to express to Alex Neil, MSP, Minister for Housing and Communities and Cllr Pat Watters, President of CoSLA their views on the relationship between local authorities and the Scottish Government. This relationship needs to be re-negotiated in light of the Coalition Government and its proposed budget cuts.

The conference will be a great opportunity for a real dialogue to start between service providers at community level, local authorities and the government. Churches have been in the business of providing social support and building up communities, long before theories of the welfare state were even imagined. Thousands of faith-based volunteers are currently providing social support throughout Scotland and this expertise and skills-base is not often acknowledged.

Our communities need to be prepared for the changes that will hit our social fabric. Resilience needs to be woven from within and churches are where they should be; right at the centre, building community.

The social price our children will pay

As public spending cuts loom and the news present us with huge quantities of information about the impact of those cuts I am convinced that our children will be seriously affected.

According to the Scottish Government 21 % of children in Scotland live in poverty. As the Coalition Government forges ahead on an ideological stand to reduce the deficit at record-breaking speed, services will get cut, people will be made redundant and many more children will face life within a jobless household.

Neither children nor the unemployed pay taxes, but a social price will be paid by both; for children this will be at school. Not all children arrive on an equal standing to primary school. Poverty breeds educational under-achievement. Scotland is understandably proud of its educational system but influential studies have noted the chronic under-achievement of children from the poorest families. Children from more advantaged households significantly outperform children from less advantaged homes and the gap increases as they grow up. There is a national commitment through the Child Poverty Act 2010 to eradicate child poverty by 2020. Will this commitment be scrapped as a result of the cuts?

The Church of Scotland has had a long commitment towards eliminating child poverty in Scotland and is in full support of The Better Odds at School campaign to be launched today by Save the Children. The campaign proposes to address the under-achievement gap by investing in extra resources for schools to support children in poverty. These resources are not called for in isolation, but as part of a strategy that targets under-achievement from early years onwards and that recognises the need to support parents in helping their children achieve their full educational potential. We need campaigns and actions like these to prevent our children from becoming collateral damage of the spending review.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Papal Visit

When Pope John Paul II visited Scotland in 1982, I was living in a small ecumenical community in West Pilton, then one of the poorest parts of Edinburgh, that was supported by both the local Catholic and Church of Scotland congregations. We were aiming to demonstrate on the ground that by being alongside people who were struggling we could do together what we could not manage on our own. So when the Pope asked, at Bellahouston, “Can we not walk hand in hand together?” we felt it was an affirmation that cut through much of the things that divided our denominations. Nearly thirty years on, there are a host of examples of ways in which that appeal has been acted on, significantly at the local community level, though it can also be seen in the much warmer relationships that exist structurally.

This time round, the challenges facing the churches are considerable. Transition is under way, and the environment is more hostile. The heart of the church, though, is found in service to others rather than in institutional survival. I hope that the current Papal visit brings another wave of encouragement for ecumenical – and inter faith – co-operation in the years ahead. In particular, that priority for the poorest will more and more be seen to be where people of faith are united and making a difference.

Notable examples of current co-operation include Faith in Community Scotland, of which the Church of Scotland and Archdiocese of Glasgow are co-founders, helping local churches to punch well above their weight in some of our poorest places. These efforts will be more needed than ever in the wake of expected cuts to provision and benefits. While the material resources available may be less than for some time, the vision of prioritising the poorest will remain, and the churches will not turn away from the challenge. Together we can do what separately we can not.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Between The Blitz and the burning of Holy Books

The newspapers are full of articles about The Blitz and of the resilient bravery and dignity of people surviving under impossible conditions. There are also items about a pastor in a small church in the USA adamant in its desire to burn the Quran to the dismay and anger of Muslims all over the world.. All of these are violent acts fuelled by intransigence. Personally, and in my role as Convener of the Kirk’s Church and Society Council, the burning of holy books of any faith is seen as an act of cultural barbarism, intransigence and is totally unacceptable.

September is also a month for deep religious reflection and remembrance. Muslim people in the UK and all over the world have been fasting as part of Ramadan. Rosh Hashanah, one of the major celebrations of the Jewish faith, where Jewish people review their actions of the past year and ask for forgiveness of their fellow human beings and of God, will take place on September 9th.

September 11th is closely approaching. People of all faiths and nationalities perished. Would it not be much better than burning books, to put into practice the power and grace of forgiveness?

Celebrating diversity and challenging discrimination

This coming Sunday, 12 September, is designated as Racial Justice Sunday by all the Churches in Britain and Ireland.

This year is a very special year for two reasons. The first is that churches all over Europe have dedicated the whole of 2010 to think about how they are responding to migration.

And the second is that, here in Scotland, a new organisation to support and encourage black and minority ethnic Christians is being established. MECTIS (Minority Ethnic Churches Together in Scotland) is being launched at a special service on Sunday evening at Wellington Church in Glasgow.

MECTIS is for the ‘black majority’ or black-led churches, for migrant churches, for Christian organisations and groups working with black and minority ethnic people, and for BME people worshipping in the more traditional, established churches in Scotland.

Leaders from MECTIS groups and the established churches will be present at the special service next weekend. I hope that MECTIS will both be a place where all people can come together to talk, and to work and worship together.

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland have produced special worship resources for Racial Justice Sunday, which will be used in churches across the whole country. Maybe you could plan to use them in your Church?

This prayer has been written by Betty Luckham of the Catholic Association for Racial Justice:

Heavenly God, we praise your name and thank you for your glorious goodness and mercy.
Lord Jesus, we pray a blessing for all those actively engaged in the struggle for racial justice.
Holy Spirit, we beseech you to enter into the minds and hearts of all those in authority in the Church.
Grant that they may:
Hear the voices crying out for justice
Engage in developing a better understanding
Act to bring about change
Lead and inspire others by their good example.

We ask this through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The love of God is greater than all evil.

We pray for racial justice:
- in our lives
- in our churhces
- in our land.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Alcohol is not an essential food item

Yesterday the Scottish government proposed the figure of  45 pence  the minimum price per unit of alcohol. If approved, this measure will affect everyone, casual and social drinkers and those with an alcohol problem.

Is paying more for our alcoholic drinks something we want? From an individual perspective, it is not nice to have to pay more for something considered enjoyable and relaxing. Scotland’s relationship with alcohol is complex. Excessive drinking is socially acceptable within our society and connected with fun and having a “good night out”. However, excessive drinking comes at a cost and we are all paying for collateral damage connected to excessive drinking.

The Scottish Parliamentary Labour Group published yesterday The Report of the Alcohol Commission. The report is an interesting read. For starters, it stresses the need for a national strategy for action on alcohol because there are no magic bullets or quick fix solutions for changing the culture of Scottish drinking. Aye to that.

The writers of the Labour report are not convinced that simply hiking the price of booze will deal by itself with the alcohol problem.  Moreover,  they argue that it has not been done anywhere else in the world. Maybe not, but let me ask you a question. If money is tight all around, is it rocket science to assume that people will buy less alcohol,  simply because it is dearer ? Alcohol is not an essential food item.

Minimum pricing is not about making drinking democratically available to all sectors of society. It is one of many possible steps to be taken to reduce alcohol consumption overall. Taking that step does not preclude a strategy with many other policies attached.

As a society, are we not willing to pay more for a drink if this cuts the alcohol related street-violence, car accidents, domestic situations and increases the overall health of our nation? I trust the answer is AYE!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Who needs palliative care?

We might think that palliative care is for those with a terminal illness, during their last months of life; however according to the Palliative Care Bill currently discussed in Holyrood, palliative care is not just for cancer patients, or terminally ill people. This Bill proposes that palliative care be given for everyone with a progressive life-limiting condition as well as their families. This is a step in the right direction because the Bill recognises that palliative care is not just for people at the end of their life, but also for those with illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, heart failure, or Parkinson’s. These type of progressive illnesses are very stressful on the patient and on the whole family.

The main thrust of the Bill focuses on the delivery of care within a hospital environment. In all fairness, palliative care in Scotland has been delivered through churches, charitable organisations and hospices. It must therefore be recognised that palliative care can be delivered not just in hospitals, but in hospices, churches, GP practices and in the home. The Church of Scotland has a long tradition in providing spiritual help to patients and families afflicted by progressive and life limiting illnesses and has been actively involved throughout the consultation processes of the Bill.

Integrated palliative care is not just about alleviating physical conditions; it should also involve spiritual, psychological and social elements. This type of integrated care requires resources beyond currently available charitable funding. Throughout the consultation processes, the Kirk has pushed for a clear financial commitment in support of integrated palliative care. In the current economic climate, a Bill without a carefully considered financial commitment will become just idle, empty words

Friday, 27 August 2010

Regressive or progressive emergency budget?

We heard yesterday discussions about whether the emergency budget is either progressive or regressive. Fancy wording for fundamental questions? It might be better to simply ask whether the budget is equitable and protects the most vulnerable in our society ?

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), not a “radical” organisation, considers that the poorest families amongst us will be proportionately bearing the brunt of the cuts. It is tragic that in spite of previous efforts by a number of organisations to eradicate child poverty by 2020 it is now apparent that this goal will not be met. A quarter of the children in Scotland live in persistent poverty and most of them are part of single parent households. According to the IFS, this is one of the groups that will be the hardest hit. Only those able to bear a load should help carry the burden. The challenges are understood; but why does it have to be those least able to withstand the brunt that carry the biggest share of the load? In other words Mr. Cameron and Mr Osbourne, why does it have to be our children?

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Protecting the human rights of Iranian dissidents in Camp Ashraf, Iraq

In 2008 the General Assembly received a report on Iran (which can be found on page 69 of this link).

It outlines some of the history and the present reality of life in a much misunderstood country, and seeks to offer some reflections on some of the key issues facing the international community. These are still very relevant two years later.

The report paints a picture of a society which is perhaps more complicated than the media might suggest. The stereotypical idea of an Islamic Republic may make some in the West think immediately of places like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban. But Iran is a diverse and complicated society. As well as recent reports of a women sentenced to death by stoning, Iran also reportedly has the most number of bloggers per head of the population. Repression and expression, seemingly, coexist, though not always peacefully.

Inside and outwith the country, political dissidents and groups work to bring human rights protection to Iran, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Attacks against the Bahá’í community in Iran have caused an international outcry by religious leaders.

Another situation that I’ve just recently become aware about are the inhabitants of Camp Ashraf in Iraq.  There are reports that the Iraqi authorities wish to disperse the camp and deport the dissidents back to Iran, where they face fear of persecution, torture or even death.

Campaigners are trying to put pressure on Iraq to make sure that the human rights of the Camp Ashraf people are respected. One group, the International Committee for the Third Option, is campaigning for greater international attention for the situation in Camp Ashraf and are calling on the international community to do all it can to help them.

Whilst the politics are complicated – Iraq is now a functioning sovereign state with its own legal and human rights institutions. How best does the international community intervene in its domestic affairs?

For the Church, it is to pray, for peace, and for reconciliation. It is also important that we don’t forget that just because the Iraq war is now over all the problems and issues are no longer our concern.

The issues of human rights, justice and dignity are often taken for granted in Scotland. For the people in Camp Ashraf and their supporters, however, they are matters of life and death.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Why we should say No to Hunterston Power Station

Friday is the final day by which objections can be submitted against the development of the “clean coal-fired” power plant proposed by Ayrshire Power.

I hope the application submitted by Ayrshire power to the Scottish government will be rejected for the following reasons:

1) The technology on which it is based is dubious and has not been tested in the large scale application envisioned by Ayrshire Power.
2) The increase in carbon dioxide emissions which such a development will undoubtedly bring about will make the national targets of Scotland’s Climate Change Act very difficult to achieve.
3) The development of the plant will be on a site of Special Scientific Interest SSCI which is supposed to be protected by law.
4) The development does not have the support of local people, nor of major environmental charities as evidenced by the campaigns organised against it.

The Church of Scotland is against this type of development. We have a moral responsibility of stewardship and care for the earth. The Church of Scotland addressed this responsibility in very concrete points by asking all of its congregations to reduce its carbon footprint both in church buildings and in their own lives. The Church is also a supporter and contributor to Eco-Congregation Scotland, a Scottish charity with over 250 congregations working to take action to care for the earth. Eco-congregation Scotland represents a huge number of people actively working in Scotland towards the reduction of carbon emissions.

On a personal level, and as part of my role as convener of the Church and Society Council, I have blogged against this particular issue and campaigned as part of the Stop Climate Change coalition to raise awareness on the importance of climate change. I therefore urge all of you to contact the Scottish Government Scottish Government at the Energy Consents Unit, 4th floor Atlantic Quay 150 Broomielaw Glasgow G2 8LU to lodge your objections against the proposed power station.

We have one week to say no.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The glorious weather

It was very difficult to resist the temptation to take advantage of this weather , so, I shall be away on holidays for a couple of weeks. It will be nice to have a break from my computer, my schedules and my mobile.

See you soon

Friday, 25 June 2010

The strength of our democratic processes

It is really positive that the Scottish Parliament’s Information Centre has recently analysed data showing that most of the people that have given evidence to Holyrood on the Assisted Suicide Scotland Bill are against the Bill.

It is a sign of the strength of our Parliamentary process that civic society takes the time and becomes involved in debating the issues and presenting their considered viewpoint to our Parliament. That’s not the same as an “orchestrated campaign” as some have suggested. The thousands of cards delivered to MSPs today against the bill are part of a campaign encouraging people to express their voice. All of this is in true democratic practice.

The Church of Scotland has long had a position against assisted suicide because such practices devalue the life and human dignity of the individual. I would encourage anyone interested in finding out the difficulties with this Bill to go the briefing paper prepared by the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office; alternatively, Dr. Donald MacDonald has written an incisive personal perspective against the Bill. Donald is a minister, a medical doctor and a user of a wheelchair. I value his perspective. I can only applaud the wisdom of those people in Scotland who will continue to make use of their civil liberties and influence the making of our laws

The beauty of all babies

Is there ever an ugly baby?

It seems as though we are moving closer and closer to have the ability to design our babies. Services are springing up allowing couples around the world, including the UK to select sperm or eggs from people belonging to a club that rates their members according to their beauty. The goal is to give the child an “advantage in life” by ensuring a pleasing physique. Our society seems to value the notion of the body as an investment that will ensure wealth and happiness. In this perspective, certain looks are considered inferior and insulting within socialite groups. We should be aspiring not just for a healthy child. - It should also be a beautiful child. The technology is indeed available for this type of engineering but is it advisable?

Where do these aspirations come from? The media and advertising industries fuel our imagination of what a “beautiful person” looks like in an endless push to get us to buy goods that will transform us into “beautiful people”. Our dissatisfaction with our looks has huge commercial implications for the cosmetics and plastic surgery industry and now possibly for bio-engineering as well. Favouring a particular “aesthetic” view of the body over another is socially and ethically deplorable because it engenders confusion between our identity as human beings and our looks. Although our looks can contribute to the way we perceive ourselves, looks are not the sole determinant of who we are as human beings. We are much more than our looks. Where should we base our concepts of beauty?

Within a Christian perspective, every human being, irrespective of looks, gender, race or ability has the value of being created in God’s image. This perspective recognises the value of the diversity of human differences without stigma. Our humanity is beautifully diverse in all of its manifestations. Our physical appearance is an expression of this diversity, but so are our creativity, inventiveness, generosity and spirituality. Those are the sources of real “inner “beauty. Anything that just favours the external physique is an incursion into the nightmare of eugenics.

The picture is by Davhor.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Deportation of unaccompanied children must stop

The UK Border Agency sent back over 300 children who sought asylum in the UK since 2004. The children were deported to their first port of entry into the EU as unaccompanied minors. There are also plans to deport children back to their own countries, even if they originally come from distinctly unstable countries like Afghanistan.
According to the Dublin Regulation the UK Border Agency is acting legally when it deports children; but is it acting sensibly? The following questions come to mind.

Is unaccompanied deportation in the benefit of the child?
What psychological effect will such treatment have on the child?
Will the child be safe upon reaching the first point of entry into the EU?

It is understandable that legislation has to be set in place to avoid an endless “pass the parcel” of refugees within the EU. I agree with Melissa Perring, programme manager of the Children’s Society when she says that this legislation should not be applied to children asylum seekers. Whether the legislation is applicable or not does not make the children go away - they are here and we should treat them with compassion, decency and fairness.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Child crime

Politicians are asking at what age children who break the law should be treated as criminals. Certainly some children start early.  However, when should we start giving them criminal records? Up to now the answer in Scotland has been 8 years old. That is out of line with most other countries. Do we honestly believe that a three year old has the ability to distinguish between an action which is self indulgent, exciting or just plain feels good and the intent to commit a crime? While our children may very well understand that a particular action is naughty, unacceptable or just plain bad they will have no understanding of criminal intent.

Yesterday the Scottish Parliament debated the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Bill and whether we should continue to consider a child as young as eight to be capable of committing a criminal act. Ken Macintosh MSP highlighted “there are some children—perhaps as young as eight—who, because they accepted grounds read out to them at a children's panel at a very young age, carry a criminal record well into adulthood; perhaps to the age of 40. I found it particularly odd that children who have enough sense of shame and of right and wrong to accept their wrongdoing—and who one could argue are therefore the most likely to turn their behaviour around—can be labelled with a criminal record, whereas a child who denies any wrongdoing or any misbehaviour can end up with no information against their name".

There is evidence that young children can behave in ways which would be seen as criminal in adults. To consider looking at children below the age of eight in relation to criminality is not just inappropriate; it witnesses to our inability as a society to truly care for our young. Giving a child a criminal record can be very detrimental to their future development and applying the formal justice system may actually contribute to a rise in young offenders, which is precisely what we should be preventing. I agree with Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner Tam Baillie when he says “It’s not appropriate to look at children below the age of eight in relation to criminality.”

We will not change the behaviour of 8 year olds by giving then a criminal record.We will be more effective if we focus on what caused them to act like that in the first place. Early intervention within the family unit combined with court-ordered welfare measures such as care and control orders seem to be the way forward. All of that may cost more money in the short term but the long term, results will save us a lot of cash and pain.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Disappointing… But still time to win the argument

Yesterday I said that during the debate on the Alcohol Etc. (Scotland) Bill, I hoped that MSPs would step back from the debate about details and support the principle that addressing the affordability of alcohol through minimum pricing is a crucial part of the solution to our problems with alcohol.

The debate happened yesterday morning and, while there was general agreement on the need to tackle Scotland's damaging relationship with alcohol, the means to do so were, as expected, the subject of heated debate. This debate focused mostly on minimum pricing- although the lack of detail on the proposed social responsibility levy came under criticism from opponents too. Nicola Sturgeon offered assurances that a price would be named before the Bill process is finished, but this didn't seem to be enough, with the Conservatives lodging an amendment calling on the Government to delete the provision for minimum unit pricing at Stage 2 of the Bill.

Malcolm Chisholm spoke against his Labour colleagues to say that "I believe that minimum unit pricing must be part of the mix of measures and, indeed, is the glue that holds that mix together. Some people have highlighted culture as the problem, but price is a key part of culture. I do not believe that culture can be effectively changed without dealing with the dirt-cheap prices that are a roadblock to culture change." When all other Labour MSPs voted in favour of the Conservative amendment, Malcolm voted against. This is the kind of clear talking and ability to look beyond partisan politicking that we need to see more of.

Bill Kidd MSP quoted from my letter that I sent to all MSPs, while others took time to reply to me prior to the debate. However, it’s always good to get a mention in the Chamber, and in fact the churches were referred to several times throughout the debate. Our role in urging MSPs not to walk away from the need to look wider than the details, however, remains important- perhaps more than ever after yesterday's debate.

The Conservative's amendment which was successful makes the outcome of this debate only a qualified success. While I welcome the fact that enough MSPs were able to support the Bill for it to progress to Stage 2, I am concerned that if minimum pricing is deleted from this Bill, then what is the alternative? This is not about party politics. This is about the need to protect individuals from the serious health consequences that accompany the over-consumption of alcohol in Scottish society. The time for feet dragging and party politicking is over, we need to unite and take bold steps to tackle this scourge on our society. I'll be watching with interest.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

On the pricing of alcohol...Does it need to be so controversial?

Our MSPs are just debating the proposal to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol. This issue has been very controversial although everyone agrees that Scotland has a culture of excessive drinking and that the consequences for our society include poor health, alcohol fuelled crime and reduced employment. Everyone agrees that something must be done.

But what should we do?

This Bill proposes the introduction of a minimum price per unit alcohol. This is a policy which the Church of Scotland has been advocating since 1983. In December 2009 the Kirk launched a campaign asking members of congregations to write to alcohol producers asking them to work with the Government to support minimum pricing. Church members have indicated their support of the campaign and this support has been expressed through different voices, in letters to MSPs, blogs etc. Personally, as a minister and as a convener of the Church and Society Council, I have not remained silent on this issue either.

We seem to be getting bogged down in the debate as to whether people on low incomes will be penalised by the Bill; or whether people will resort to online purchasing in order to access cheaper alcohol. Modelling exercises have been done trying to predict consumer effects and the more we research the more confusing the issue seems to get. Does it need to be so confusing and controversial?

We cannot know, for certain, how consumers would respond to a minimum price; in the end we have to make the best decision we can with the best information available to us. The best information that is available to us is the updated Sheffield Study which draws the clear conclusion that minimum pricing will reduce alcohol consumption. The minimum price needs to be set high enough to generate real change. Minimum pricing is not a panacea and it will not by itself solve our societal problem with alcohol consumption. However, the evidence suggests that an increase in the minimum price of alcohol will reduce consumption of alcohol and reduce the resulting problems for individuals and our society. It is not a case of penalising the majority in order to discourage the minority.

What are we really debating, a health issue or an economics issue? I believe that this not a debate about which policy will be most beneficial for businesses or for Government revenue. This is a debate about whether we, as a society, choose to take action to improve our collective health and wellbeing. We live in a society in which the consequences of excessive drinking are shared by us all. It is up to us to say that an individual, regardless of their income, does not have a right to unlimited access to cheap alcohol when such access is detrimental to the common good.

I hope MSPs stepped back from the debate about details and supported the principle that addressing the affordability of alcohol through minimum pricing is a crucial part of the solution to our problems with alcohol.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Scotland Bill

It seems that the coalition government is in a hurry. Nick Clegg has said that the coalition government was one of reform. So far so good, however, measured steps should be taken upon some of the projected reforms. The Scotland Bill is a case in point. This is an important piece of legislation that would implement some of the final recommendations of the Calman Commission effectively giving the Scottish Parliament increased financial powers. Due consideration and consultation with stakeholders in Scotland needs to be taken before the Bill gets implemented. If the Scottish Parliament is to have increased financial powers, this should be done within a schedule that suits Scotland and the Scottish people and not just following a politically expedient timetable.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Reflections on the Mavi Marmara incident

We will have all seen by now the footage of the boarding of the Mavi Marmara by Israeli soldiers.

Clearly what happened was appalling and the deaths of the nine activists is utterly deplorable.
Some people said that Israel has a right to defend herself and her people, and that the convoy of ships were clearly warned what might happen. Others have called this a massacre, or state terrorism. The use of loaded terminology is brandished effortlessly to sway public opinion one way or the other.

There are many conflicting versions and opinions of the same event. Emotions will inevitably be running high, in Turkey, in Palestine, in Israel, and right around the world.

Violence can never be an answer to conflict. I pray that all sides in this crisis will now realise that continued intransigence and provocation will never result in peace. This disaster needs to be investigated with a clear mind to search for the truth, in order that we can learn how to avoid anything like it ever happening again.
I hope that Christians, Jews, Muslims and all people of faith can come together to reject violence, and in particular condemn anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Scotland. I fear that there may be a backlash against Jewish communities living in the UK following the actions by the Israeli state. It’s at times like these that we need to speak up for the right of all people to live free from fear, and in peace.

The Kirk' possible influence in shaping an agenda for the future

I was heartened when I heard of the appointment of Danny Alexander MP as Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

I met Danny when he attended last year’s Church and Society annual lecture in Aviemore – which was on the causes of the credit crunch. He’s going to have to play a key role in negotiations about budget allocations, public sector pay, welfare reform, and procurement policy over the coming years.
The Aviemore meeting was a seminal conference where the views of the Council concerning ethical investments began to take shape. Almost a year after later, we’ve launched a special Commission on the Purposes of Economic Activity to explore ethical and moral questions related to economics, wealth and happiness.

I hope that the Kirk’s voice will be heard when decisions are being made about tax and spending priorities. The Economics Commission will help inform our position.

We are part of a tradition that has helped shape social and economic changes in Scotland and in the UK. For instance, in 1940, the Kirk launched a Commission led by Edinburgh theology professor John Baillie, whose report was credited with helping to shape crucial social changes after the Second World War, including the welfare state, the NHS and expanded educational opportunities.

Our current work – such as supporting the Poverty Truth Commission and through the development our new Economics Commission – means we can contribute to a sustainable economic future.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Chinook Helicopter Crash Inquiry

I was delighted to hear that the new Government has agreed to an independent review of the 1994 Chinook helicopter crash where 29 people died. This is very good news indeed. Since the crash the Church of Scotland has both provided pastoral support for the families and repeatedly urged the Ministry of Defence to reconsider the judgement of “gross negligence” against the 2 pilots.

The three enquires that have taken place already have raised more questions than they have answered. Crucial questions have been raised in particular about the computer control systems which have been ignored by the MOD.

I hope that after this inquiry the families of the victims and the families of the pilots will finally achieved a sense of closure. Its been almost 16 years and that in itself is an injustice.

World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel

Every year the World Council of Churches, which the Church of Scotland is a member, runs a programme to support peace in Palestine and Israel.
The ‘World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel’ has been running for a number of years and is becoming more established as part of the church year. This year it runs from tomorrow, Saturday 29 May to Friday 4 June.
There are three main strands:

1. Prayer – to pray for peace, for justice and alongside Christian communities living in the Holy Land.

2. Educate – raise awareness about the conflict, the issues, and the situation facing people living in Palestine and Israel.

3. Advocate – working in partnership to ask decision-makers to work for a lasting peace.

A number of resources have been specially produced for this year, including:

  • An information leaflet produced by an alliance of UK churches and Christian organisations
  • A worship liturgy produced by Irish churches
  • The ‘Jerusalem Prayer’, a special prayer for peace composed by church leaders in Jerusalem that will be used in churches all over the world on Sunday.
Lots more is available on the WCC website.
One exciting development that I am interested in has been taken up by the UK Ecumenical Council on Corporate Responsibility. They have started a campaign to try to improve the labelling of produce from the Occupied Territories, and asking retailers to stop selling and consumers to stop buying things from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These settlements are illegal under international law, have been criticised by the UN and their continued existence is a block to a permanent peace settlement.