Having had a big needle in my shoulder yesterday, I followed the Syria crisis developments without knowing whether to or how to respond. So much has been said and is being said that adding to it seems pointless. Nevertheless, ahead of the debate in the UK Parliament yesterday, Dr Charles Reed offered a concise elucidation of 'just war theory' (in a series of short blog posts) in order to provide a framework for ethical thinking in relation to the decisions to be made.

No one doubts the seriousness of the issue, and any sign of gloating over David Cameron's 'humiliation' in the House of Commons last night simply demonstrates the ethical confusion that is around. The debate seemed – to me, at least – to revolve around pragmatic questions of achievability rather than questions of ethical consistency. And that is not a criticism. It was not clear what the objective of military action should be and, if done, how its effectiveness might be gauged.

Perhaps these questions focus the matter a little more sharply:

  • Is military action intended to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons and, if so, what action might achievably serve as an effective deterrent?
  • Is military action intended to weaken Assad's military strength and disrupt his ability to fight his civil war – and, if so, how achievable is this, especially when the civil war is being fought by monsters on both sides?
  • Is military action intended to target stocks of chemical weapons and render them useless – and, if so, how does blowing them up not create an even bigger chemical problem?
  • Why is mass murder using chemical weapons the trigger for military intervention when sustained and systematic mass murder using 'conventional' weaponry was not?
  • Is military action intended to make a difference on the ground in Syria, or to salve the consciences of those who look on helplessly from outside?
  • What is the point of the United Nations when resolutions can be sought, but subsequently overridden by 'exceptional circumstances'?

Contrary to some assertions in the last few weeks, chemical weapons have been used more recently. Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds. I seem to remember that it was the West that funded and equipped Saddam during the 1980s when our later enemy was our friend because he opposed our then enemy Iran. Can someone remind me who paid for the chemical weapons and who supplied them?

It seems to me that democracy worked last night and for that we should be grateful. Recriminations for political decisions should not take our eye away from what is happening to innocent people in Syria. The regime is behaving barbarically, but so are the rebels. As in the 1980s with Iran and Iraq, taking a short-term approach to funding, equipping and supporting one faction (Islamist fundamentalists, for example) now will lead inexorably to further injustices, cruelties and problems later. That is what history tells us, but what we find hard to learn.

David Cameron's political misjudgement or humiliation is irrelevant. The point of this whole business is how to find an effective way of galvanising international power to bring an end to the brutal civil war in Syria. Our MPs have reflected what seems to be the mood of the country – which, of course, doesn't make it right – and declined the use of military force by the UK. So, what is now their alternative strategy? My guess is that it lies somewhere in diplomatic battles with Russia, China and Iran – however difficult that may be. And Obama must decide, having taken a longer-term view, what will be most effective rather than what might make the USA look strong. This is about Syria, not the political power of 'us' and 'ours'.

In conclusion, I just wonder how those who now 'humiliate' David Cameron would be reacting if Tony Blair's 'winning the vote' over Iraq had equally failed. Would we then have praised the power of democracy – or would we have called for his head for having put his case to Parliament and failed? I would give Cameron some space: he is asking the right questions and they have not gone away just because the UK has vetoed the possible use of our forces in an intervention.

 

I caught a hint of a glimpse of a headline somewhere yesterday while on the move. It simply raised the question of how we, citizens of a democratic country, would have responded several decades ago to the suggestion that every individual would carry around on his or her person a tracking device. It sounds absurd, doesn't it? We would reject such a notion as being an infringement of personal privacy and a seriously worrying intrusion by the state (or other powers).

Well, like many things, we allow it to happen because rather than be presented to us as a policy, it simply creeps up incrementally as 'technological development'. So, now, without really thinking a great deal about it, we live in a surveillance state, whereby the 'powers' can know where I am, what I am buying, who I am texting/phoning, which websites I am perusing, where I am driving, who I am with, and so on. CCTV, road cameras, debit/credit cards, social media, mobile signal triangulation, store cards, etc. – the mere fact of this coverage makes any idea of privacy seem a little ironic (in an Orwellian, 1984 sense).

So, I was amused to read this morning's (always) excellent Newsbiscuit piece about GCHQ.

 

I was at the BBC studios in MediaCity, Salford, this morning to take part in a radio discussion about immigration. Well, not about immigration itself, but the campaign currently being run by the Tory part of the government (their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are distinctly queasy about it) to show how hard they are regarding illegal immigrants.

Maybe it is a coincidence – and I know Godwin's Law might be invoked here – but yesterday was the anniversary of Zigeunernacht – the night of 2/3 August 1944 when the Gypsy Family Camp (The Zigeunerlager) at Auschwitz-Birkenau was ‘liquidated’. 2,897 men, women and children of Roma or Sinti origin were murdered in the gas chambers by the Nazis, their corpses being burned in pits. Of the 23,000 Gypsies imprisoned within the camp, it is estimated that around 20,000 were ultimately murdered.

Well, it all began with the corruption of language. That's how propaganda works. You change the associations and re-align semantics in order (often subliminally) to change perceptions and manipulate affections. So, yes, I have banged on about language many times before now – and, no, I am not suggesting that the government's current immigration campaign will inevitably lead to another holocaust. But, what I failed to get across coherently on the radio this morning is this:

  • We need a full, informed and intelligent public debate about immigration, and not the current polarised, nasty slanging match in which parties compete to be the 'hardest'.
  • We must distinguish between the 'issue' of immigration and the current campaign by the government. Immigration is a good thing and without it Britain would be stuffed. Our wealth has been created (for good and ill) by immigrants to this country in recent centuries.
  • It is a nasty little distraction to compensate for complete failure by governments to establish, monitor and run an effective immigration policy by targeting a few illegal immigrants with a crude campaign.
  • If effectiveness is important in evaluating any policy, then this one must surely be doomed. How many 'offenders' have turned themselves in so far? We are getting daily updates on numbers of 'immigration offenders' on the Home Office's twitter feed, so why not a daily update on the numbers of those handing themselves over?
  • Isn't it the great British addition to maintain that people are innocent until proven guilty? Then why are these people called 'immigration offenders' when they can only be 'suspected immigration offenders'? And how many of them are turning out to be people whose applications for asylum or right to remain are held up in the massive and endless backlog queues at the Home Office?
  • Net migration is not a problem. Yet, from time to time we hear that we are not getting enough immigrants to met the needs of our economy. Why are immigrants being targeted (and impugned as a financial and social burden) – and why is this being coupled with welfare costs or burdens on the NHS?

These are just some of the questions hanging around. The real issue, however, has to do with the motivation for this unpleasant political campaign. And it is political. It is a macho PR stunt that will achieve little, but cause real damage to language, culture and community. It relies on the sort of categorisation of 'sorts of people' that dehumanises them by association – thus rendering them subject to 'different' values of behaviour or treatment.

The point is that the campaign with the vans, the twitter feed and the selective picking on people at London stations (based on crude racial profiling – if you are not white, you are fair game for stopping and checking) contributes to a coarsening of perceptions about immigrants, regardless of whether they are legal or illegal. It increases fear on the part of immigrants, creates a culture of suspicion and 'anti-otherness', and achieves nothing of any positive purpose.

It all begins with the corruption of language and the confusion of issues. 'Illegal immigrants' morphs into 'immigrants' and the categorisation has begun.

Has any Home Office minister ever visited airport deportation centres and sat down with frightened people to listen to their human story? Aha! But, there's the rub: that would humanise the 'illegal immigrant' and make it harder to get rid of him/her.

If the government wants to address immigration, it should do so by sorting out a workable policy and ensure that those who do apply for asylum or a right to remain are treated humanely, efficiently and effectively – and, if appropriate, prevented from entering the country in the first place. To distract attention with displays of hardness has everything to do with political PR and little to do with reality – except for those whose reality is to be a victim of the campaign.

(And I haven't even started on a Christian theological anthropology of immigration…)

 

Oh dear. Tens of millions of pounds lost to the taxpayer by firms overcharging for privatised services. Good on the Justice Minister for referring the whole mess to the Serious Fraud Office.

What now, then? Will the whole system of privatised services be questioned in the same way as is the welfare system? Will business owners be pursued because of their moral failings as well as their bureaucratic or financial ‘weaknesses’ (or are ‘scroungers and skivers’ more morally culpable than those who steal money in other ways)?

Just asking (during a spare minute at the desk).

Today a letter has been published in the Financial Times and, probably, other newspapers around the world, signed by 80 of the world's religious leaders and urging G8 governments not to drop the Millennium Development Goal ball with 1000 days to go. Here is the text of the press release:

Religious leaders from across the G8 countries have called on Heads of Government to follow the UK in fulfilling existing commitments to spend 0.7% of national income on aid, in a letter to the Financial Times. From today, the 79 signatories including the Archbishop of Canterbury, point out, 1000 days remain to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the 2015 deadline.

With a focus on tax, trade and transparency, the religious leaders argue, the UK Presidency of the G8 has the potential to advance the MDG agenda in ways that strike at the underlying causes of poverty, in particular by ensuring the wealth created by developing countries is not lost through unfair tax practices, a lack of transparency or a failure to secure the benefits of trade for developing countries.

“Meeting the remaining targets, while challenging, is possible – but only if governments do not waver from the moral and political commitments made over a decade ago,” the letter stresses.

The Rt Rev Nick Baines, Bishop of Bradford said: “With only 1000 days left to achieve the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN, it is imperative that the G8 Heads of Government set the pace and do not allow this to fail. I shall be tweeting my support using #1000DaysToGo and hoping the flood of comments encourages governments not to waver.”

They argue for a G8 Convention on Tax Transparency committing signatory countries to prevent individuals and companies from hiding wealth so that it is untraceable. Further, they call on the G8 to press for greater financial transparency from governments of developing countries so citizens can hold their governments to account for the money they spend.

“Development is working but challenges remain,” the letter points out. “The number of people living in extreme poverty has been halved ahead of time and 14,000 fewer children die each day than in 1990. Yet one in eight people still go to bed hungry every night and more than 2 million die of malnutrition each year.”

The financial crisis may be a reason but is not an excuse for hesitation or deferral, the letter states. “Reaching a purposeful consensus on these areas won't be easy. But, if the political will and moral leadership is forthcoming, this year's G8 could help to create an environment that encourages the conditions for inclusive, equitable and sustainable economic growth – conditions that are desperately needed if we are to realise the MDGs and even greater things beyond.”

And here is the text of the letter itself:

To G8 Heads of Government,

Today marks the start of the 1000 day countdown to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the 2015 deadline. It is an appropriate moment to pause and to reflect on progress to date.

Development is working. But challenges remain. The number of people living in extreme poverty has been halved ahead of time and 14,000 fewer children die each day than in 1990. Yet 1 in 8 people still go to bed hungry every night and over 2 million die of malnutrition each year.

Even as conversations accelerate as to what ought to replace the MDGs, we should not slacken our efforts towards realising existing goals. Meeting the remaining targets, while challenging, is possible – but only if governments do not waiver from the moral and political commitments made over a decade ago.

Thirteen years on from the start of the Millennium the values and principles that drive these goals are as imperative as ever. The financial crisis may be a reason but is not an excuse for hesitation or deferral. The MDGs remind us that in addition to providing for the well being of our own societies, we have a collective responsibility to uphold human dignity and the common good at the global level. Each individual has a value that can never be lost and must never be ignored.

With a focus on tax, trade and transparency, the UK Presidency of the G8 this year has the potential to advance the MDG agenda in ways that strike at the underlying causes of poverty, in particular by ensuring the wealth created by developing countries is not lost through unfair tax practices, a lack of transparency or a failure to secure the benefits of trade for developing countries.

As religious leaders from across the G8 we recommend that our Heads of Government take the following actions when they meet in June. First, fulfil existing commitments to spend 0.7% of national income on aid. Secondly, launch a G8 Convention on Tax Transparency committing signatory countries to prevent individuals and companies from hiding wealth so that it’s untraceable. Thirdly, press for greater financial transparency from governments of developing countries so that the citizens of these countries can hold their governments to account for the money they spend.

Reaching a purposeful consensus on these areas won’t be easy. But, if the political will and moral leadership is forthcoming, this year’s G8 could help to create an environment that encourages the conditions for inclusive, equitable and sustainable economic growth – conditions that are desperately needed if we are to realise the MDGs and even greater things beyond.

Anyone can join in the associated Twitter campaign.

Since 2005 the has been a religious leaders' summit held immediately prior to each G8 meeting in the host country. This year we have decided to try a different approach to raise consciousness and make representation to governments.

 

How interesting.

Papers released today from Margaret Thatcher's personal archive reveal that not everyone in her cabinet was in favour of sending the Task Force to the South Atlantic in 1982 to reclaim the Falkland Islands from the dastardly Argentinian invaders.

I was working in Cheltenham at the time and remember well many of the details of it all. Most of us also remember that the UK had given off many signals that our interest in maintaining the Falklands was weak – for example, the announced withdrawal of HMS Endurance from the South Atlantic. Not that this justifies the invasion, but you know how politics work.

However, that's not the interesting bit of today's news reporting.

Apparently, Thatcher's cabinet was 'split'. In other words, not everyone shared the same point of view as to how to respond to the invasion. We have discovered – much to our apparent shock or surprise – that opinions ranged from 'just let the islands go' to 'stick it up 'em, Captain Mainwaring'. But, what is shocking is simply that anybody should think of being shocked.

Do we not think that adults disagree – even when in government and faced with a quick decision about war? Isn't the whole point of collective cabinet government that different opinions are represented and given space for being voiced? Shouldn't we expect our leaders to be a little bit clever, a little bit concerned to look at all options, a little bit open to having views changed and developed as well as potentially confirmed by argument? This is why confidentiality matters: people with responsibility need a safe space within which to rehearse even their heresies in order to see what holds water and what doesn't.

Our problem is that we live in a culture where adults holding differing opinions is called 'division' or 'split'. Goodness knows we understand how all this language plays out in representation of the church. it is a little bit pathetic, but it also has the effect of inhibiting grown-up debate. 'Difference' is not the same as 'division' – it just doesn't sound as dramatic.

When will we grow up?

 

It’s a weird world. I posted on 21 February stuff related to the concerns that prompted 43 Church of England bishops, backed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to sign a letter to the press. Published today in the Sunday Telegraph, it has caused a bit of noise.

Clearly, the substance is not the issue, or it would have hit the headlines some time ago. It is the fact that a pile of bishops has signed it that makes it a story. And that’s good.

Let’s get one thing straight: this letter is not anti-government or anti-Cameron; it is pro-children.

wpid-Photo-9-Feb-2013-1604.jpgAnd another thing: read some of the comment threads on this story on news websites and a repeated (outraged) question has to do with the competence of bishops to dare to voice concerns in this way. Who are they to speak? Well, (a) we are people who participate in civil society, (b) we also have a voice with others in the democratic process, (c) we have people in every community in the land and are probably closer to the ground than most politicians, (d) it is our responsibility to speak truth without fear or self-regard, (e) if we can make a voice heard, then we have a responsibility to do so, and (f) such questioning is just silly and simply distracts from the issue at hand.

Thirdly, the question of priorities remains unanswered: we can bail out banks to the tune of billions of pounds, but it’s the poor who have to pay? The government’s language has become increasingly and deliberately disingenuous, lumping people on welfare benefits into the category of ‘feckless scroungers’ who lie in bed watching other people go to work. Yet, they know that most people being hit by welfare cuts and the bedroom tax are low-paid working people. Why is this being done? (See the recent report The lies we tell ourselves – another intrusion by those pesky Christians who really should be silenced…)

Here’s the letter as published:

Dear editor,

Next week, Members of the House of Lords will debate the Welfare Benefit Up-rating Bill.

The Bill will mean that for each of the next three years, most financial support for families will increase by no more than 1%, regardless of how much prices rise.

This is a change that will have a deeply disproportionate impact on families with children, pushing 200,000 children into poverty. A third of all households will be affected by the Bill, but nearly nine out of ten families with children will be hit.

These are children and families from all walks of life. The Children’s Society calculates that a single parent with two children, working on an average wage as a nurse would lose £424 a year by 2015.

A couple with three children and one earner, on an average wage as a corporal in the British Army, would lose £552 a year by 2015.

However, the change will hit the poorest the hardest. About 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

If prices rise faster than expected, children and families will no longer have any protection against this. This transfers the risk of high inflation rates from the Treasury to children and families.

This is simply unacceptable.

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Children and families are already being hit hard by cuts to support including to Tax Credits, maternity benefits, and help with housing costs. They cannot afford this further hardship penalty.

We are calling on Members of the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of this Bill.

I think that when Jesus used the phrase he probably meant something different.

The British Parliament is currently debating what is sexily known as the Benefit Uprating Bill. Basically, this puts into law what the Chancellor announced in the 2012 Autumn Statement: to limit the rate at which most key benefits and tax credits are increased by just 1% for the next three years. This happens to be well below the expected rate of inflation.

Put to one side for a moment the conundrum that never gets addressed, viz why the rich need to be incentivised by keeping more wealth whilst the poor need to be incentivised by being made poorer. (This simply means that society pays for the consequences in other ways.) What this 'benefit uprating' means is:

  • costs of living are expected to rise faster than support increases to cover these additional costs;
  • based on average earnings for their profession, a single-parent primary school teacher, with two children stands to lose £424 a year by 2015. A nurse with two children could lose £424, and an army second lieutenant with three children could lose £552 a year. (Parents affected include an estimated 300,000 nurses and midwives, 150,000 primary school teachers and 40,000 armed forces personnel.)
  • coming on top of a number of other wide-ranging cuts to benefits and tax credits for children and families, (for example, with the 1% cap coming on top of previously announced freezes) by 2015-16 Child Benefit will have increased by just 2% in the course of half a decade.

It is the impact on children that should cause us most concern as this is disproportionate. The Government’s own impact assessment suggests that around 30% of all households will be affected, but 87% of families with children will be affected, including 95% of single parent families. The Children's Society estimates that 11.5 million children are in families affected and notes that whilst the Bill will affect children and families from all walks of life, children in the poorest families will be affected the most. The government’s impact assessment shows that about 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

No surprise, then, that the Children's Society and other concerned parties are urging a re-think – that benefits and tax credits paid on behalf of children should be removed from the scope of the Benefit Uprating Bill. This would mean removing benefits including Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit, and child additions within Universal Credit.

The demand from food banks is increasing alarmingly. Schools are increasingly reporting children beginning the day without having had anything to eat. As I said in response to a request from my local Bradford newspaper:

Child poverty does not just make life a little bit miserable for a child now; it affects the whole of their life, their physical growth, their education, aspiration and life opportunities. This is bad for children, families, schools and society. And it is a scandal in a so-called civilised society. We must ask serious questions about our priorities and government ministers must be made aware of the human consequences of policies made behind desks.

The figures for Bradford can be seen here. What statistics don't show is the complex of ways in which childhood poverty is destructive of so much and of so many. This isn't just about welfare or 'scroungers' – it impacts on all of us and needs some serious attention. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked on his arrival at Heathrow Airport what he thought of western civilisation; he responded: “I think it would be a very good idea.” If our civilisation is measured by our treatment of the most vulnerable in our society, then we have questions to ask about our priorities.

And, while this reality bites, the government is also thinking of changing the way child poverty is calculated. You can read the Church of England's response here, summarised in this statement by the Bishop of Leicester:

The real issue is committing to, and resourcing, an effective long-term strategy to tackle child poverty, rather than finding alternative ways of measuring it.

 

Amazing.

Processed foods contain the wrong animal. And what line do media sensationalists take? “Do you mind eating horse rather than cow?” Brilliant.

How can there possibly be any objection to eating one animal rather than another? Whenever I find myself in Central Asia, we eat nothing but horse. It is the staple meat on the Steppe. And it is fine, if you like that sort of thing.

Surely the real controversy ought to be about misrepresentation and obligation. If a company tells us its lasagne is made of beef, then it should moo rather than neigh. The producer should know what is in their product and tell us the truth on the packet. Furthermore, if we trust cow – because there are rules about what goes into their rearing and which drugs cannot be used on them – then we might reasonably question if the same rules apply to horses.

Hence, it is a question of integrity and confidence, not of food safety. We should not be sold a pup… as it were.

And, as I said on Twitter, whoever in the government chose to call the matter 'distasteful' should get instant promotion.

 

Yesterday an open letter from thirty church leaders in Yorkshire and Humberside was published. Addressed to the Prime Minister and copied to the Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, the letter aims to highlight concerns about the impact of welfare cuts in the part of England we serve. It was timed to preempt the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement due tomorrow.

The thing about church leaders is that we have people in every community, from every stratum of society, and of a huge diversity of origins and backgrounds. Perhaps we are unique in that respect. Our reach goes deep and wide – and the pictures we build are not fabricated according to ideology, prejudice or even theology.

The letter caught local headlines, but managed to omit reference to a crucial paragraph in which the potential for getting people off welfare and into work is applauded. However, we also have to maintain a concern for those who cannot work, cannot get work or who fall through all the nets. Churches (among others) are currently and quietly providing night shelters for homeless people, running food banks, caring for people (and families) whose life has been radically changed for the worse.

The letter adds the voice of thirty church leaders (on behalf of those who tell us their stories of grassroots experience) to others attempting to inform the Government how its proposals are impacting on people (in our case) who live outside London; welfare cuts are having an impact on people every day and the poorest are paying the highest. In Bradford we have 38,000 children living below the poverty line. We still see the poorest people getting poorer, while the richest people are getting richer – and that’s a scandal.

The letter, accompanying a study entitled Am I my Brother’s Keeper? A Christian Overview of Welfare Reform and Cuts in Public Spending (Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber), reads as follows:

As Church leaders in the North of England, we would like to express our concern over the way that cuts in public spending and reforms to the welfare system are beginning to play out in the communities we serve. We commend to you a policy paper written by the Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber, Am I My Brother’s Keeper, which offers an informed overview of welfare reform and cuts in public spending in the context of the values that have driven welfare since the inception of the Welfare State.

We are concerned that the ideology behind many cuts and reforms serves to undermine fundamental principles of mutual care that are basic to our vision of a good society. We are similarly disturbed that the political rhetoric that is increasingly used of benefits claimants, “scrounger” and “feckless” to name but two, stigmatises welfare in such a way that those who are in genuine need become reluctant to make claims, to the detriment of themselves, their families and the communities in which they live.

We express support for those aspects of Universal Credit which make a genuine attempt to address longer term problems within the welfare system that can act as a deterrent to work. Indeed, we agree that work is the best route out of poverty for many people. However, we would also wish to draw your attention to the need to ensure that full-employment remains a policy aim for the Government in support of a system that sees welfare as transitional assistance for those that are capable of work.

We are especially troubled by welfare reforms that time-limit benefits at a time when structural unemployment makes it impossible for many to get the jobs they need for themselves and their families.

We would also urge care in applying means-testing in an aggressive way that further polarizes the debate about welfare into one in which the independent and self-sufficient think of themselves as being in permanent support of the dependent and “feckless”. Our view of the good society as interdependent and of people as fundamentally of equal worth, makes it impossible to support that polarization.

We wish to confirm our support for:

  • The Welfare State
    • As a mechanism for remedying the worst effects of laissez faire capitalism
    • As a way of addressing social inequality
    • As a safety net for those who are temporarily, or permanently, in need
  • A system of taxation that encourages responsibility among the wealthy to share their good fortune with other members of the society to which they belong
  • A work ethic which encourages all people towards employment and the duty to care for themselves and their own families in the first place, as they are able and when economic life permits
  • Full-employment as a policy goal that allows the Welfare State to function properly

Finally, our experience in the North underlines the need to achieve a better balance in the UK economy between the South – and especially the South-East – and the North. This would enable people in northern communities to deploy and benefit from their skills and abilities and thus contribute to enhancing the productivity of the country as a whole.

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