Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Designer Babies

Only this Wednesday I was blogging about the sale of human eggs and Murdo Macdonald, Policy Officer of the Society, Religion and technology project passed on to me information about the open market conditions in the USA for the purchase of eggs from young women with high academic achievements. This situation is different from that of women from developing countries who chose to sell their eggs possibly to alleviate conditions of poverty and deprivation. It is not that I am against the commerce and profit making of valuable commodities. Commercial activities are good for people and for the economy.

Human tissue is one of the most valuable commodities, and it is legally for sale in some countries in the world. However, the availability of human parts in an open “fertility supermarket” presents a number of ethical problems. It is legitimate to ask, why might it be ethically wrong for a woman to consciously decide to sell parts of her body? Nobody would object to the selling of her hair, why object to the selling of her eggs? Hair and human eggs are not essential for survival and most women have plenty of them. However, eggs are not the same as hair. The eggs are unique life-giving bodily parts. They are not interchangeable and each one carries distinctive personal family traits. From a Christian perspective the uniqueness of each human being is deserving of our complete respect, and we should beware that commercialisation of human eggs is becoming commonplace. Legal does not always equate with wise, and some matters are more than a matter of supply and demand.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Children are paying for the imbalance in the supply and demand for public housing

Shelter Scotland made a plea yesterday for Scottish Ministers to prioritize the housing needs of children in their guidance to councils and other agencies. Their report states that 22,000 children were made homeless in Scotland last year, amounting to 60 children a day. The release of this data is particularly ironic, considering that in 1946 the Committee on Homeless Children in Scotland was hailed as a landmark in the creation of a child welfare policy. Since then, a series of government initiatives like the Housing (Scotland) Act of 2001 and the Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act of 2003 have tried to tackle the effects and causes of homelessness. In 2001, as a result of a debate on the Scottish Parliament on the principles of the Homelessness Bill, MSP Tricia Marwick asked Ms Margo Curran Minister for Social Justice whether “ B&B or temporary accommodation was suitable for families and children”? The answer from Ms. Curran, was that that type of accommodation was indeed inappropriate but “ The committee reports on the bill are littered with quotes… saying that it is probably the most progressive legislation in western Europe and that the Executive has delivered for homeless people in a way that has not been possible before”.

Delivered? Nine years after the 2001 act and 2 years away from the target set in the Homelessness etc (Scotland Act of 2003) of entitling “all unintentionally homeless people to permanent accommodation” the equivalent of 3 classrooms of mostly less than 5 years old children are made homeless every day. The impact of homelessness on children has been amply documented and covers psychological and emotional problems, health and nutritional issues as well as lower than average educational attainment. These are just the problems related to the children; there are also all the problems homelessness brings to the family as a unit.

According to the Key Trends Housing summary statistics produced by the Scottish Government the level of public authority housing has been steadily decreasing since the 1980’s and since the 90’s it has hovered between 3 and 4% mostly due to the right to buy policy. While it has been beneficial that some households have become home owners, overall the level of public ownership of housing stock has decreased. Statistics show that in March 2008 public authorities owned 599,000 units amounting to 55% of the stock. This contrasts sharply with public housing ownership of 777,000 units (90%) in the 1990’s. the situation in 2010 has not changed much; as public authority housing decreases the role of registered social landlords within the area of social housing has increased dramatically.

The imbalance between demand and supply of social housing is quite evident. According to the Government’s Housing Statistics for Scotland Bulletin in 2008 there were 16,471 dwellings built by the private sector, 4,577 dwellings built by housing associations and only 336 dwellings built by local authorities. It is clear that public authorities are not building housing, and that the level of building by housing associations amounted to 28% of those built by the private sector. In March 2009 (the latest statistics available) there were 199,554 applicants on the housing register. It would not be presumptuous to estimate that amongst them were many families with children. Only 28,038 applicants got re-housed by the same date.

As public housing becomes scarcer, house prices dearer, and most dwellings built for profit, a nagging question crops up… Who is responsible for housing the neediest of our children?

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Hate Crime

The Green MSP Patrick Harvie put forward in 2008 legislation which would put Scotland in line with the rest of the UK in terms of coverage for members of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) hate crimes. Today this extended coverage was unanimously approved in the Scottish Parliament in the form of the Offences (Aggravation by Prejudice) (Scotland) Act. The definition of hate crime provided by the Home Office is “A hate crime is any criminal offence that is motivated by hostility or prejudice based upon the victim’s disability, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, or transgender. “ Sadly, Glasgow, my home city has a history of hate crime, from sectarianism to bullying people for their sexual orientation. According to a report provided by Stonewall, a large numbe of LGBT people have suffered some form of abuse, ranging from verbal abuse to intimidation and beatings.

I welcome and support this legislation on a personal lavel and also because The Church of Scotland has long been against discrimination and attacks that specifically target people’s identity, irrespective of whether the crime was motivated by sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity. From a Christian perspective such discrimination and harassment is morally wrong as well as being unlawful.

Should Human Eggs ever be for Sale?

According to the Los Angeles Times, Ron Harris auctioned human eggs in the USA with bids starting at $15,000 in 1999. The practice of auctioning and selling human eggs for IVF treatment is not only done in the US. Recently,  an IVF fertility clinic in London “raffled” a fertility treatment cycle in conjunction with a US based clinic in Virginia which is responsible for selecting donors and for processing payment to the donor in the order of £6000. The practice is now being done in Scotland where Scottish patients could undergo initial stages in a Glasgow clinic and then proceed with the rest of the treatment in Spain where, according to the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction , “Spanish legislation specifically places the relationship between the donor and clinics on a contractual basis”. The sale of human eggs is not allowed in the UK where donors are only compensated “reasonable” expenses and loss of earnings up to a maximum of £250.The problem is that there is a long waiting list for donated human eggs and a market has arisen.

It is a tribute to the creativity of scientists, biologists and medical doctors that some solutions to infertility are now available. Infertility is a complex emotional problem and the pain and tribulation of individuals and couples facing it should be weighed on the balance against the ramifications of the sale of human eggs for our society.

The Church of Scotland has a clear policy against the sale of human eggs because it considers the practice exploitative of the poor, who may feel compelled to become donors for a fee, undergoing invasive, potentially dangerous and often painful procedures. Fran Abrams of the Daily Mail documented the case of donors from Eastern Europe who have sold their eggs sometimes to the detriment of their own health. The practice is also actively pursued in India with medical tourists travelling for a variety of medical reasons including IVF treatments. The estimated revenue for the assisted reproductive technology industry in the USA alone was calculated at $2 billion US dollars. Donors only receive a small amount of this. It is very telling that such level of profits are extracted from human misery.

The sale of human eggs favours the commoditisation of human parts. Human eggs should not be in a shopping basket on the same level as a grocery item. Commoditisation erodes the inherent value and dignity accorded to the human body and human life. Just as it is wrong to buy and sell human beings it is wrong to buy and sell human eggs.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Another Coal Power Station

Ayrshire Power has confirmed its intention to build a £3 billion coal-fired power plant in Hunterston. This proposal has been in the pipeline for over 2 years. Peel Energy logged in 2008 an environmental impact assessment for its proposed state of the art multi-fuelled power plant. The plant would be fuelled by coal and up to 14% biomass, such as wood making it very efficient. Their report states that “the proposed power station would utilise carbon capture and storage technology when viable, enabling it to provide secure, low carbon energy and capture up to 90% of the CO2 produced by the plant. This Carbon Capture Ready (CCR) 1,600 MW power station would to help meet the energy needs of up to 2 million homes throughout the UK”. So far so good. However, there is never a free lunch.

According to a document produced in 2005 by the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in order to store CO2 it first has to be captured, transported and then stored for many hundreds of years. Storage alternatives mentioned include the ocean; injection into geological structures or transform the CO2 into a solid carbon precipitate. It is very logical to ask how much energy will be spent capturing, transporting, storing or transforming the CO2?

The new application rests on the assumption that the new power station would use carbon capture and storage to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere but this technology is still in its infancy and has never been proven at the scale required to work effectively in a power station of this size. There are grave reservations from environmentalists on the viability of this technology but the concerns are not only from organizations such as Greenpeace, but also from local people. The congregation at Fairlie Parish Church lives close to the site of the proposed power station and have been worried about its implications for some time. The Church of Scotland backs the concerns of this local congregation.

This proposal represents the first real challenge for the Scottish Government’s much applauded Climate Change Act which was agreed by the Scottish Parliament in 2009. The Church of Scotland, as part of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition, strongly supported the Climate Change Bill in its passage through the Scottish Parliament.

Unless carbon capture can be made to work effectively and quickly the new power station would seriously compromise the targets included in the Scottish Climate Change Act and put the credibility of Scotland’s world leading position would be put in doubt. For this reason I feel great concern about the wisdom of this application and call upon the Scottish Government to do nothing that places its climate change targets at risk.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The issue with Vulture Funds

Today I have written to Harriet Harmon urging her on behalf of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland to give Government time to the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill on Thursday 18 March. It is currently listed under 'remaining orders of the day' and is highly unlikely to be passed. I believe that her intervention is needed to make official Government time for it instead.

The trouble with vulture funds is that they are intrinsically exploitative and contribute to making poor countries even poorer. Heather Stuart from The Guardian explained it brilliantly “They buy the debts of poor countries, usually at a sizeable discount, wait until the government has received debt relief from foreign creditors, and then pursue their share of the debt in courts around the world.”

It is disappointing that a Conservative MP blocked the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill on its third reading in Parliament on 12 March. However, George Osborne has stated that "The Conservative frontbench did not object to further progress of the Debt Relief Bill on Friday 12 March 2010, nor in any way collude with the objection. The Bill is due to be debated this Thursday and we are willing to co-operate with the Government to allow this Bill to progress on that day."

The Government still has the power to prevent the Bill from dying. I do hope that necessary actions be taken to ensure vulture funds are no longer able to prey on the world's poor.

The effects of passive drinking.

Lucy Adams, the chief reporter from The Herald in Scotland has written a piece on the effects of alcohol abuse on unborn children. It is a tragedy to recognise that thousands of children are suffering the aftermath of alcohol abuse which got into their bodies as foetuses.

Dr Jonathan Sher, director of research, policy and programmes at Children in Scotland has stated that children can visible suffer malformations due to the effects of alcohol ingested by the mother during the first three months of pregnancy. In a report which has been submitted to the UK and the Scottish Parliament, Dr. Sher stated that not all the damages are visible at birth, but only become apparent later on in the life of a child, who might suffer from learning disabilities, or suffer in his/her abilities to plan, learn from experience and impulse control. Apparently over 900 children in Scotland are directly affected by Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, (FAS) and thousands more suffer from its diverse effects later on in life.

Scotland has long had a culture of alcohol abuse and a” good night out” is not seen as complete without an alcohol binge. My own city of Glasgow has been documented as far back as the 1990’s as having a severe case of alcohol dependence particularly in the east end of the city. Sadly this dependence continues. The Rowntree Foundation released a report stating the steady rise in the consumption of alcohol by women where binge drinking was commonly done in 2009 by 15% of the female population in the UK.

Children do not need to be born with FAS and live with debilitating disabilities for the rest of their lives. This tragedy is entirely avoidable, if we modify our attitude towards alcohol. Alcohol abuse is entirely unacceptable. This goes both for men and women. The Church of Scotland has had a clear policy against alcohol abuse and is a supporter of the minimum pricing policy.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Anti-Nuclear March this Saturday in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Quakers have put a banner on their building in the capital's Victoria Terrace in preparation for an anti nuclear weapons march and demonstration. This event organised by Scotland's for Peace for this Saturday aims to ensure that the Trident nuclear weapons system is on the general election agenda. The march will be led by First minister Alex Salmond and passes the Meeting House en route for the Grassmarket.

The banner's message is at the heart of an ecumenical movement that sees the UK Government's proposal to upgrade the Trident nuclear weapons system based in Scotland as morally indefensible.

This morning, Cardinal O'Brien met Ian Galloway from the Church of Scotland at the Quaker Meeting House to admire the banner. Although the Cardinal will not be able to make the demonstration on Saturday, he encourages people of all faiths to attend, and says

“The use of nuclear weapons is wrong in all cases, and it therefore followed that retaining them, with the threat to use them if necessary, is also unacceptable. Possessing such weapons undermines Britain's moral authority. ”

Ian Galloway; Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland added

“On the 13th of March I will be in Edinburgh marching and speaking against nuclear weapons. I do this out of a firmly held personal convictions that nuclear weapons are wrong as they kill indiscriminately but also because the Church of Scotland as long spoken out against such weapons.”

Recently, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev Bill Hewitt, joined the Scottish Clergy against Nuclear Armaments pressure group in launching their new campaign to put Trident and nuclear weapons at the heart of the general election campaign.

After Alex Salmond speaks in the Grassmarket at Saturday's rally, the other speakers are Ian Galloway, Mark Lazarowicz MP (Labour), John Barrett MP (Lib Dem), Alis Ballance, candidate, (Greens), Kate Hudson (CND Chair) Trade Union representative Mike Kirby, and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch.

The event will be chaired by actor David Hayman, with music from the Commotion Drummers and community choir Protest in Harmony. Assembly is outside the Parliament at 11.00am on Saturday. Local information at about action to be taken at Scotland's for Peace at

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Temperance in the application of immigration law

Within the last few days Glasgow has witnessed two children being taken into prison, for the crime of being Nigerian, and three people from Eastern Europe plummeting to their death under the possible threat of deportation. These are tragic examples of the way people facing desperate situations react when placed against the wall. In 2007 Glaswegians demonstrated their distress at the imprisonment of children by immigration authorities and the unease in the city is just as palpable now.

The onus is on the immigration authorities to apply the law with justice and temperance, exercising the judgement required by each particular case. If asylum seekers behave in the way which is expected of them by our immigration authorities and they present no risk of flight, there is no real reason to place them in prison prior to deportation, particularly if children are involved. Since 2004 The Church of Scotland has opposed the imprisonment of children.

Scotland has long prided itself on its democratic and Christian values. Should we not remind ourselves that we need to treat others as we would like to be treated?

Growing up with alcohol abuse

Alcohol consumption in the UK has doubled in the past 50 years. In 1960 every person over 16 drank 5.7 litres of pure alcohol. In 2007 it had risen to 11.53 litres per person. We also drink in a different way. There is now more than 60% consumption of spirits at home as opposed to drinking in public spaces. Alcohol is now at the centre of family life in some Scottish households. This means that there is an increased potential for children to be involved in alcohol related incidents.

A number of children's charities have backed up the proposal for a minimum pricing on alcohol in an attempt to curve down the drinking problem in Scotland. Research commissioned by Childline Scotland and Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems has found that children suffer emotional and psychological damage as a direct result of parental alcohol abuse. Children who phone Childline often speak of alcohol in the same breath as mentioning physical violence, abuse and neglect.

Children should be protected from harm. The Church of Scotland, has long had a clear position on alcohol abuse and is a clear supporter of the campaign on minimum pricing of alcohol. Clearly, the needs of our children and young people should be placed above purely commercial interests.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Against Nuclear Weapons

On the 13th of March I will be in Edinburgh marching and speaking against nuclear weapons. I do this out of a firmly held personal convictions that nuclear weapons are wrong as they kill indescriminately but also because the Church of Scotland has long spoken out against such weapons.

Recently, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev Bill Hewitt, joined the Scottish Clergy against Nuclear Armaments pressure group to launch a new campaign placing Trident and nuclear weapons at the heart of the general election campaign. The Church and Society Council which I convene supports this campaign and has been actively distributing postcards encouraging people to contact their MP’s regarding their stand for or against nuclear weapons.

The march will assemble at the Scottish Parliament at 11 am and march off at 11.30 with the Rally at the Grassmarket at 12.30. Speakers will include

I will be sharing the platform with Alex Salmond,   Mark Lazarowicz MP (Labour), John Barrett MP (Lib Dem), Alis Ballance, candidate, (Greens), Kate Hudson (CND Chair) Trade Union representative Mike Kirby, and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch, chaired by actor David Hayman. More information on the march is available at the Scotland for Peace website.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Grandparents in childcare

Hilary Osborne reported in the Guardian a few days ago that grandparents are increasingly looking after their grandchildren and incurring loss of income as a result of this. Grandparents have a lot to contribute to enrich the lives of young people and their role in child development has been amply documented. Grandparent’s involvement in childcare is a sure sign of the strength of the extended family unit and is a clear example of intergenerational solidarity. All of these things are extremely positive.
However the “Protect, Support, Provide” Report commissioned by Grandparents Plus and the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that grandparent’s involvement in childminding is more likely to occur in lower income families, ethic minority families, single parent families or where there are disabled family members. It is more than likely given the child poverty conditions in Scotland as mentioned in the “Growing up in Scotland” report that the situation detailed above is happening in Scotland as much as in the rest of the UK. The Scottish Ministers’ vision for children as expressed in the Charter for Grandchildren mentions a number of professionals that are responsible for helping children grow up as responsible, healthy, happy human beings. The list includes not just professionals, but also parents and grandparents.

In 2009 the Treasury estimated that 45,000 people were looking after their grandchildren mostly for free, therefore saving the taxpayer around £3.9 billion per year. The government seems to have a clear recognition of the contributions financially and socially that grandparents bring to their families and to society at large through the nurturing of our young. Should it therefore not encourage and reward their efforts financially beyond the promised credits for the basic state pension scheduled to start in April 2011?