Monday, 21 July 2014

Conference hears Catholic Church still failing on the environment

Writer and broadcaster Mary Colwell has criticised the Church hierarchy for failing to speak out on the environment.

Addressing the annual National Justice and Peace Network in Swanwick, Derbyshire, Ms Colwell declared that although the Church might be getting to grips with climate change this does not amount to “doing the environment.”

“Doing what we can to get to grips with climate change is not doing the environment, anymore than thinking curing cancer will solve all the health problems of humanity,” said Ms Colwell. “Over fishing isn’t climate change, nor is misuse of fresh water, plastic pollution, destruction of habitats, extinction of species, the pollinator crisis and so on.”

The broadcaster suggested that Catholics could make the world a better place by reducing meat and fish in their diets.

A meat diet produces twice as much carbon dioxide as a vegetarian one, with grazing taking up 26% of the earth’s surface. “To be true to our baptism we should carefully consider not eating meat more than once or twice a week,” said Ms Colwell.

Equally fish stocks are under threat as never before, with the level of white fish caught in the North Sea reducing by 46% over the past century. “Promoting fish on Fridays just exacerbates a problem and highlights how little the church is engaged with what is happening in the world,” said Ms Colwell. “Just by doing something simple, cutting down on meat and fish, will make a big difference. By saying why you are doing it tells the world we care.”

Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather claimed that the distrust born of the MPs expenses scandal has bred an atmosphere of fear in politics, which can be most clearly perceived in the immigration debate.
Ms Teather told how trust in the relationship between MPs and the public has broken down, becoming far more combative and contractual.
The Liberal Democrat MP, who is standing down at the next election, claimed that as a result of this distrust in politics, politicians create fears that they then pretend to resolve. This amounts to creating a straw men on themes like immigration and then knocking it down.
She gave examples such as the moves to cut NHS support and benefits for migrants coming to the country. "We don't have the data to back this up," said Ms Teather, who claimed most migrants came to Britain to work and contribute.
She appealed for a fairer hearing for politicians. "Politicians are like everyone else, there are good and bad," said Ms Teather, who called for people to look to build alliances across political divides to really effect change

Clare Dixon, head of Latin America and the Caribbean team at CAFOD, told how Pope Francis had been converted from an orthodox and authoritarian position back in the late 1970s to his present radical stance in favour of a church of the poor. “The prophetic (liberation) church of Latin America is now sitting in the Vatican,” said Ms Dixon, who told how a number of great advocates for the poor including Dom Helda Camra and Archbishop Oscar Romero began on the right before converting to become advocates for the poor as a result of their experiences in Latin America.

Sister of the Congregation of Jesus Gemma Simmonds called for a priesthood of the laity.

She spoke of a sacramental life that was the same for all of God’s children, things should not be compartmentalised away. We are all equal before god.

“Whatever is meant by a priesthood of the laity,it doesn’t mean the clericalisation of the Church – there is enough of that already.

The 36th NJPN conference was the first time that the all speakers and facilitators were women

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Need to rebalance MPs recruitment


There is a growing disillusionment among the electorate with the political class. 
A recent Guardian/ICM poll revealed that 56 per cent of people think the biggest problem with Westminster is politicians breaking promises, while 44 per cent are fed up with careerist MPs who “look and sound the same.”
This disillusionment has been picked up by Ukip and plays a key part in its appeal. Its leader Nigel Farage regularly delivers the line about the self-serving political class because he knows it hits the right note with the electorate. 
The claims about looking and sounding the same, if added to the expenses scandal and the latest revelations about possible paedophile cover-ups, all help create a sense of disillusionment.
There seems little doubt that at the heart of political parties there is a process of replication going on, whereby those related to existing MPs, special advisers and others on the payroll all seem to have a better chance of becoming MPs than ordinary people in the street.
The Guardian research revealed that almost half of Labour candidates selected to fight in marginal seats at the next election have links to Westminster as former special advisers, party workers, researchers, lobbyists or MPs.
In the case of the Labour Party, there seems to be a strange process of disconnection. 
The procedures of the party are incredibly democratic — positions in constituency Labour parties, from ward to the executive committee, are all elected in what can seem a laborious process. People give of their time freely and the rules stipulating equality of the sexes make the whole system seem very much of our time.
Yet at another level people seem to come in from other parts of the country, often foisted on a local party from outside. Individuals seem to be parachuted into seats who are pretty much alien to the community they seek to represent. 
The feeling that there is on one level this excellent accountable democratic process going on yet that this can be put aside at a moment’s notice to bring in some friend or acquaintance of the leadership helps breed resentment. 
There has been some disquiet about the relatives of existing MPs taking up seats. Will Straw, son of Jack, was selected for Rossendale and Darwen, while Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil, is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Aberavon. 
There are also growing storm clouds in Liverpool about the possibility of Euan Blair, son of Tony, being parachuted into Joe Benton’s seat when the veteran MP retires at the next election.
Not that this hereditary advantage is restricted to the Labour Party. A glance at the Tory benches reveals Francis Maude, son of Angus, Nick Hurd, son of Douglas, and Bernard Jenkins, son of Patrick, as just some representatives of political families.
There is no reason why the sons and daughters of existing politicians should not follow in their parents’ footsteps. They will obviously have the advantage that their parents know their way around but this should not be any barrier. Many children follow the profession of their parents but the same names gives a certain value to that sameness of the political class that the electorate so abhors.
The electorate would really like to see people that look, sound, think and live like they do. This is not reflected in a Cabinet of public school Oxbridge millionaires governing a country where more than one million people go to foodbanks.
In past times, Labour MPs were drawn in large numbers from the working class — miners, manufacturing workers, engineers and postal workers made up the ranks of the parliamentary Labour Party. Not any more. Lawyers abound, as do those who many in the electorate claim have not done a proper job of work in their lives.
It is interesting to note the career path of many of this group. They graduate, often having played an active role in student politics and working their way up the greasy pole. Leaving university, they do charity-type jobs by way of a meal ticket while charting a way around the political scene.
Among those organisations that count present and prospective MPs among their number are the IPPR and the Young Foundation. Kendall, Tristran Hunt, Patricia Hewitt and Lib Dem pensions minister Steve Webb have all had past involvement with IPPR, while Will Straw is presently an associate director of it. 
Labour MP for Bethnal Green Rushanara Ali was associate director at the Young Foundation, while Labour MP for Walthamstow.
An important rung on the Westminster ladder though is becoming a researcher to an MP and/or a special adviser to a minister or shadow minister. Throughout this metamorphosis aspirant parliamentarians see very little of how “real people” live. Hence the complaint of a detached political class.
There are efforts being made to address these problems. Trade unions like the CWU and Unite have made real efforts to get working people into Parliament. They help prepare people to know how to tackle the system. However, the path for working people from the trade unions to become prospective parliamentary candidates are often blocked. Some in the party seem often to prefer clones from their own political class. 
Trade union-backed candidates also often find their way blocked by candidates supported by the Blairite Progress group. This conflict has all the potential to bring outright civil war in the party, especially if it fails to win the next election. 
One positive thing that the party has done is to embrace some of the culture of community organising that has proved so effective in London and other parts of the country. 
The model here, initially picked up on by David Milliband with his Movement For Change initiative, was Citizens UK. This aims to really connect with the community, using trained organisers to build clusters of support.
It is the willingness to embrace ideas like community organising that gives hope for the Labour Party of the future. There needs to be a real getting back to grass roots. This must mean working with the unions to get more representative working people into Parliament. 
It should also mean having local people from their area representing that place, wherever possible. There should be an end to the likes of Oxbridge academics and TV presenters being parachuted into working lass constituencies of which they often know little.
Former Labour minister Michael Meacher told the Guardian that unions remained the party’s best hope of helping people from a diverse range of backgrounds into Parliament.
“Irrespective of right and left, there have been too many people who come through the traditional student politics, join the National Union of Students, get themselves a job as an assistant to an MP and the next thing is they are looking for a seat with the protection and support of the MP,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s wrong, it’s a valid route, but it has been overdone. 
“It does mean there are nothing like enough MPs who are working class. Everybody realises we need to rebalance MP recruitment and do that in a way that is proportionate to class background. A lot of people see themselves as working class, expect to be represented as working class and at a time of six years of continuing austerity expect their MPs to be far more conscious of their plight than some of them are. 
“The people most likely to do that are people who come from the same roots.”
In the case of the Labour Party the answer is very simple — stop the double-standard operation. Let those who join the party, work and get involved in the democratic process locally in representing the people in Parliament. This is what the party’s structures mandate to happen. 
It can be achieved if the processes are not overrun by decisions from the centre promoting the favoured few from the political class over and above everyone else.

* morning star - 18/7/2014

Thursday, 17 July 2014

A society that knows the the price of everything and the value of nothing is no place for euthanasia

When Parliamentarians debate the proposed legislation on assisted dying/euthanasia, the position that should be adopted is that of the most vulnerable person in our society. It should not be viewed through the eyes of the millionaire novelist but the elderly person, alone in a hospital bed without friends, family or support. Then add in factors like economic pressure on NHS resources and a growing lack of value for life generally and a more realistic picture emerges.
This society does not measure up well when it comes to how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. There is the appalling treatment of children at one end of the scale and the warehousing of elderly people for the benefit of an avaricious privately run care sector at the other. 
Prior to any debate on loosening the restrictions on euthanasia, there needs to be a much bigger discussion about what we have become as a society, how we treat the old, young and most vulnerable. If anyone believes that this society is mature enough to handle euthanasia then think again, look at the way the weakest members are treated and the increasing tendency to know the price of everything and the value of nothing

* published Independent - 18/7/2014

Friday, 11 July 2014

Economy needs more trade unions and less tax dodgers

The themes of striking public sector union and tax dodging companies ( Guardian 10/7) nicely summarise a fault line of the British economy. The indicators suggest that the economy is picking up but the mass of people are not feeling any different - wages down, cost of living up.
This is because any improvement in the economy does not get passed onto the workers, It goes instead directly to the bosses who ship their money offshore to avoid tax.
The result of this unjust arrangement is a society where a few billionaires corner the mass of wealth while more than a million go to food banks.
Powerful and effective trade unions are one way to rectify this situation. Unions bring greater equality to our society. People working in unionised workplaces are better paid and have better conditions of work. Only by setting trade unions free can the balance be restored in society that will see more of the wealth flowing to the many rather than the few. The idea that further restricting trade union activities has any value might play well in the Tory shires but in terms of creating a working and just economic system it is total bunkum.

Guardian - 14/7/2014

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Care at home:where the system is falling down

It is now nearly a year since my mother died, so there has been some time to reflect. I believe that the system of care companies which look after older people in their own homes is at breaking point, and reforms to it are urgently needed.

The need to bring some support first occurred four years ago, when Mum felt she wanted help with getting up and washed. She had too much in savings (that is, more than £23,000) to qualify for Local Authority carers, but social services provide families with information about the various companies that are available. We went for a small family-run operation. This worked well for the next two-and-a-half years, Mum having an excellent rapport with her carer, Marie.

As her requirements grew, however, she was in and out of hospital, and needed more frequent visits. Eventually, there was only one company that could provide the level of cover required: the element of choice had gone. The idea that the client can mix and match from a range of options is a long way from reality. And this was in a part of the south coast of England where there is a large concentration of elderly people.

I met one of Mum’s former carers, Sue (not her real name) recently. She looked exhausted. Working for the care company for the past 14 months, on a zero-hours contract, had taken its toll.

She could have a day packed with back-to-back calls, or the office manager might give her a couple of hours of work in the morning, then a gap of four hours, and later on, calls stacked up into the evening. Often, she said, she wanted to stay longer to get the job done properly, but there was pressure to get in and out as quickly as possible.

Most companies have a system whereby the carers ring their office on arrival at the client’s house, and again before they leave. This gives an accurate record of the time spent with each client. It has to come from the client’s phone, to confirm that the carer is there, and not elsewhere with a mobile phone.

There has been much talk recently about 15-minute calls as not being sufficient for care needs. This can, of course, be the case, but sometimes, 15 minutes could be more than is needed. If you are paying for the call, you want the visit to last as little time as necessary. It is one of the more distressing elements of private care that you have to judge whether genuine compassion is being shown, or whether it is really about the care company’s getting paid.

The company needs to be monitored by the client’s family or a friend. In our case, Mum was loath to lose Marie, with whom she had struck up a friendship. In the case of a company that we used later, however, I was constantly seeking to have one person lead the operation, to ensure that the routine was done the same way; that things were put away when the carer left; and that the team dealing with Mum should consist of a small, stable number of faces. This was not always the case, which caused great distress.

A number of lessons can be drawn from our family’s experiences. The first is the need for the vulnerable person to have someone acting as an advocate, to stand up for him or her when dealing with the care company, and with social and medical services.

A distinction needs to be drawn between people who fund themselves, and those for whom the local authority picks up the bill. The amounts can be horrendous. The final four-visits-a-day bill was £800 per week. Recent recommendations suggesting a cap on care spending by individuals would be welcomed by many.

There should also be more concern for the carers. Relatives often say that they feel unsupported, and overwhelmed by the pressure of looking after a member of their family, particularly, if they are trying to keep a job going at the same time — often, such people have to give up their jobs. Research conducted by YouGov for Carers UK in February 2013 found that 2.3 million people had given up work to care for elderly parent, or a disabled or ill family member. This is said to have cost the exchequer £5.3 billion in lost tax revenues, on top of the additional benefit costs.

One of the problems is that the ability of families to provide voluntary support is taken for granted. The Generation Strain, a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research in April, argued that soon (by 2017 was the estimate), there will not be enough family members to deal with all those who require support.

Professional care workers do vital, skilled work, which should be valued by society. They should not be on the minimum wage and casual contracts: they should be salaried, with decent pay and conditions of employment, such as holidays and sick pay. This would change the care sector overnight. The present system of bringing in people, giving them a little training, and exploiting them to the point pf burn-out is no way to run a system.

A wider question must be whether care can ever properly be conducted by private-sector companies, whose concern at the end of the day is profit and return to shareholders. The ethos of caring does not sit easily with their bottom-line economics. A state-run system is unlikely to prove popular with the current Government, however, especially against the background of continuing cuts in public spending. More non-profit organisations and charities operating in the sector would help.

As a whole, there needs to be a more accurate assessment of what the care requirements of an ageing population are, and what systems could be put in place to cope with this.

What is certain is that the present system is not working.

*Church Times - 27/6/2014

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Bruce Kent getting hard of hearing at 85

A throng of the good and great from the human rights world gathered to celebrate the 85th birthday of Bruce Kent. Among the assembled throng were former Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaff and former Guardian foreign editor Victoria Brittain. The veteran campaigner, who recently completed a walk across the country in protest against Trident, admitted to failing hearing after all these years. Bruce told how he remarked to his wife Valerie Flessati how rude a man had been saying Bruce Kent your getting obese, when it turned out he had said Bruce Kent it is good to see you are still working for peace. Another, remarked on knowing him when he was someone important. The old ones are the best ones as they say.

*Guardian diary - 24/6/2014

Monday, 23 June 2014

Death of Gerry Conlon marks shameful period for British justice

The death of Gerry Conlon at the age of 60 marks a sad day for the British justice system.
Conlon was one of four people unjustly convicted for the Guildford pub bombings in 1974, which killed five people and injured 65.
In the febrile atmosphere of the time, as the IRA bombing campaign extended to England, the police were on alert for any possible atrocity. Anti-Irish Catholic hostility was at its height.
When the Guildford and later Birmingham pub bombings happened, the police were quick to move, grabbing as it turned out the nearest Irish person.
Conlon was one of those unfortunately convicted. It took 15 years for the four individuals known as the Guildford Four to attain justice.
Many people helped over the years in the justice campaign, not least solicitor Gareth Peirce and the late Sister Sarah Clarke who supported the families.
The families themselves played huge roles in establishing the innocence of their loved ones. Gerry’s father Giuseppe came to London to fight for his son’s innocence, only to get caught up in the whole terrible business himself. He was arrested together with members of the Maguire family and convicted of terrorist offences.
Giuseppe played by Pete Poselthwaite in the film about the Guildford Four,  In the Name of the Father,  was to die in prison in 1980. The Maguires and Guiseppe (posthumously) were also later cleared of their convictions.
Gerry Conlon’s mother and sisters were to continue to steadfastly support him throughout the long years in prison. Sister Sarah Clarke played a major role in supporting the family and men over this period.
At the time of Gerry’s untimely death, new reports included the clips from that triumphant day back in 1989 when the Guildford Four were finally cleared of murder. The iconic picture of Gerry together with family, arm raised aloft in defiance. What few would realise is that whilst he had won a triumph over the justice system this was just the beginning of another struggle.
The general public believe that once an individual has been cleared of such crimes, they get compensation and life resumes. The reality could not be further from the truth. Innocent prisoners are actually treated worse than those who have actually done the crimes. No preparation for release, accomodation arranged or resettlement courses. Most are just kicked onto the street with a bag for their belongings and a payment of £40 or so to be getting on with. It is as though the justice system is having its final vengeance for having been found at fault for incarcerating innocent people in the first place.
Yet most of these victims of miscarriages of justice need a lot of support. Gerry Conlon had two breakdowns, suffered with drug and alcohol addiction and attempted suicide. He received some treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Nor was Gerry’s situation isolated. Billy Power of the Birmingham Six told of his difficulties in resettling into life outside. A door with a handle that can be turned and opened from the inside. The busy streets and way life had changed over the 16 years away. Billy told how he was used to battling the Home Office and justice system but found it much more difficult to deal with rows in the family. The Birmingham Six were found to have psychological problems.
Few of the high profile miscarriage of justice victims ever work again. Some put a lot of effort into working for the justice of others. Gerry Conlon became involved with several cases over the years and played an important role in the work of the excellent Miscarriage of Justice Organisation (MOJO).
Gerry also notably spoke out over the miscarriages of justice of the present day, with people being put under control orders and detained for years on end without ever being brought before a properly constituted court of law.
Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six is another who has played an active role working for justice. He has been involved in several campaigns and was a founder member of MOJO.
Billy Power of the Birmingham Six campaigned for fellow Irish prisoner Frank Johnson , who was finally cleared of murder in 2002 afteer serving 26 years.
Frank was another turned onto the street with £40. He lived his first few months of freedom at Billy’s house. He died in 2008.
The death of Gerry Conlon should be a time for society to reflect on a justice system that still convicts innocent people. It should also be a time to examine just how these damaged individuals are treated when released. They require support and help, not simply to be chucked on the criminal justice scrap heap.