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.