Thursday, 21 April 2011

Letter bombs and violence

Having spent yesterday doing media interviews around the bombs sent to Neil Lennon, Paul McBride and Trisha Godman I have been reflecting on the profile of violence in our society. Knife crime is being prioritised by the Labour party in the Holyrood election. Domestic abuse figures are way up, and of course news media ensure that we have the details of every crime of violence day after day.

In Holy Week, Christians are reflecting on the suffering of Jesus - Put to death on a cross. And reflecting too on following Jesus in the role of peacemakers.
Locally in Gorbals, where I am Parish Minister, one of the things we do – and have done again over the past two weeks, is take 90 young people aged 15/16 from the local schools, Catholic and non-denominational, to Northern Ireland. They see Belfast, meet young people there and spend time at Corrymeela in North Antrim, a place that has been a centre for refuge, respite and challenge for people there for decades and right through the troubles.
The aim, of course, is to give these young people the experience of belonging to one another and to enable them to have a first hand view of the reality that people are trying to overcome. It’s work we have won awards for, but the greatest reward is seeing young people realise their potential to change the future and shake off ancient prejudice.
Bombs in Scotland? Unthinkable. The death throes of sectarianism are painful to be part of. It is time they were over.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Reflecting on the Poverty Truth Commission

If George Osborne wants to explore with any seriousness what would give a hint of reality to his assertion that “we are all in this together”, he could not have done better than attend the closing session of Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission on Saturday afternoon in Glasgow City Chambers. At the beginning of the Commission, two years ago, before a gathering of four hundred witnesses, a number of people with direct experience of poverty set out the challenge that their experiences have an essential contribution to make if we are serious as a society about tackling poverty. Also present were a number of people of the kind that we think of as having real influence, from the world of politics, the media, academic life, the police, business, and the Church. The outcome was the forging of a partnership between those with the experience of poverty and those with the influence. Together over the past two years they have wrestled with the need for change, and together they have taken, by way of an example of that need, the cause of kinship carers to Parliament in search of a little more justice for some of the people whose voluntary effort already goes way beyond anything the government might conceive. A big society already exists – big hearted, and at a big cost to those involved.

There are two questions that might be asked as Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission reached its final session. What has been achieved, and what has been begun?

So what has been achieved? Recently I was asked to speak in Germany about the Church of Scotland’s work in our poorest communities. At the end the local mayor said: ‘Very good, but you have not told us how to end poverty.’ Neither has the Poverty Truth Commission. Child poverty figures are once again on the rise, and despite claims that the cuts programme is fair, all the indications are that once again the poorest among us are already being hit the hardest. Inequality is rooted in our society in ways that are hugely resistant to change, and only action and resolve from all of us together can make that happen.

Yet the Commission has brought change which may yet prove of lasting significance. It has demonstrated that with due attention paid to process, meeting style, appropriate support and acute listening, the many and varied gifts of people who have learned about poverty the hard way can be brought to bear as part of the solution. The learning that has made this possible is now available to be built on in other settings.
It has also provided evidence of the lie that is at the heart of the rhetoric about benefit fraud. Churches across the UK managed to extract an apology from Lord Freud when the Chancellor lumped together figures for error in the system with those for fraud and made the issue appear three times its actual size. After spending most of my adult life working in and around some of our poorest communities, I have met some people who are good at playing the system, even illegally. However they are few in comparison to the people who lead frugal, disciplined lives on amounts that many of us would find it hard to envisage existing on. The Commission has given a platform to some of the yearning and aspiration that exists in people who our society has failed, and demonstrated that they do not need to be portrayed in the ways that sadly prevail without much opposition.

Saturday's closing session presented a series of challenges that we ignore at our peril.

Too much of the way we have tried to deal with poverty has treated those most directly involved as objects, rather than those with the skills and experience to shape our response. In regeneration initiatives, little of the resources invested – other than the physical building of houses – stays in the poorest communities. It is time for a change, and as the Poverty Truth Commission is all too aware, that has only just begun.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Poverty Truth Commission

Tomorrow, Saturday 16th April, sees the closing session of Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission take place at 2pm in Glasgow City Chambers.

Two years ago the Commission was launched in the same venue in front of 400 witnesses. Following an afternoon in which a range of people who have learned about poverty the hard way made their case for change, a partnership was formed between these testifiers and some of those in our society – from the worlds of politics, the media, academic life, police, the Church – who wield power and influence.

Now – after two years of working together - they will issue a series of challenges. Early next week I will publish the link to their final report – it is important that this is widely read and acted on.

I know that already nearly 400 people have signed up to attend tomorrow’s session. But if you are inspired to turn up, give it a go. If it is anything like the opening session, you will not regret it. With an election in front of us, no politician in Scotland should be unaware of the Commission’s work, or of the challenges it is bringing.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

What do our political parties stand for? (and how can we find this out?)

The Scottish Parliament dissolved ahead of the 5 May Election on 22 March. I watched the 5 main political parties out on the campaign trail and waited to read a full explanation of their policies in their manifestos. Two weeks later I am still waiting. So far this week there have been 2 high profile manifesto launches which means that half our parties are still campaigning without telling us what they would do in Government. All the polls tell us that a minority or coalition government is likely so it is important that we know the policies of the smaller parties as well as the larger ones.

My colleagues in the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office were awaiting manifestos even more keenly than I am and they have discovered that some parties will only make their manifestos available online; you will not be able to have a paper copy unless you print it yourself. Others are still discussing whether they will charge for copies of their manifesto! Many voters will struggle to access online only documents, and many more will make their voting decisions based on incomplete information or how well the party leader performs in a public debate.

Can you imagine applying for a job and telling your potential employer that they could not see your CV until half way through the interview? These parties are asking us to choose who will form the next Scottish Government. They should have the honesty and integrity to tell us what they stand for.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

UK Government breaks the law on Child Poverty Act?

The long-awaited UK child poverty strategy is to be published before the UK Parliament breaks for Easter recess today. This document will lay out how the UK Government, alongside Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and local government counterparts, will reach the targets of eradicating child poverty by 2020.

This week it has emerged that the Child Poverty Action Group has written to senior Government ministers criticising the late arrival of the strategy, which should have been published by 25 March 2011. They've already missed that deadline, but the Government has assured MPs that the strategy will be published before the recess.

It is not just the date of release that the Government is dragging its heels on. The 2010 Act requires a commission to be set up, whose role includes giving advice on the writing of the UK strategy. DWP minister Maria Miller, recently wrote that "our plans for establishing a Commission will be set out in the Child Poverty Strategy, to be published shortly." This is the wrong way round! The independent commission was intended to inform the writing of the strategy, and to scrutinise the proposals, not to be set up after the strategy has been published.

I hope that this, along with Save the Children's recent concern that the recent UK Budget announcement failed to address child poverty, isn't an indication of this issue dropping further down the list of priorities of our government. Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats supported the Child Poverty Act when they were in opposition: so what is causing this reticence to comply now?
To take the challenge of tackling child poverty in this country seriously, the UK Government needs to be serious about implementing this law. I wait with interest for their response.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Climate Day

On Climate Day, Wed 13th April, just three weeks before the elections, political parties will announce and publish their climate change polices. At the same time, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (SCCS) is encouraging people across the country to engage with the issue on this day and to get involved in an online community, where you can access blogs and other video content and take part in conversations and debate on climate change issues.

Climate Day will culminate with a live, online debate with climate change spokespeople from each of the five political parties currently represented in the Scottish Parliament. Tune in and post your questions and comments live via the online forum and Twitter.

I think that climate issues and environmental challenges are fundamental to the political agenda and we need to make sure we use all opportunities to let that message be heard. The earth remains a precious but fragile gift and we need to make sure we cradle it with greater care than we have up to now

For more information:

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Twitter: #SCCS_Elections