Monday, October 31, 2005

The technicalities are circling

David Blunkett’s critics accuse him of failing to declare a directorship with a DNA testing company to the standards watchdog within two years of leaving ministerial office. Contacting the standards watchdog was not compulsory, only advised. He did not hold the directorship whilst he was a minister. Indeed he resigned the post as soon as he was reappointed to the cabinet. On present evidence David Blunkett is guilty at most of a minor technicality. His opponents delight in tripping him up with an insignificant speck, because they sense he is vulnerable to pressure. Let’s hope that they remembered to check their own eyes first.

Public accountability and transparency of our leaders is to be welcomed, but as David Blunkett’s experience demonstrates technicalities in relation to dishonest gain carry disproportionate weight. We demand resignation for minor infringements in this area partly because there is no agreement on what other behaviour we expected from a minister.

The following questions are a suggestion of what criteria we should be using to judge ministerial conduct. They do not touch on the substance of the decisions made, which are rightly left to political argument.

1) Does the minister make decisions which s/he considers in the long term interest of the country even when these conflict with short term self-interest or political expediency?
2) Does the minister speak with integrity in public? Is the minister prepared to accept responsibility for mistakes as well as successes?
3) Does the minister promote good governance by making every effort to work with ministerial colleagues and overcome personality differences?
4) Does the minister lead his/her department in order that it is managed efficiently, develops a culture of honesty and integrity and seeks to bring out the best in its staff?
5) Does the minister ensure on a continuing basis that s/he listens and responds to a genuine cross section of informed and honest opinion and not become beholden to any one interest?
6) Has the minister used his/her office for dishonest gain?

Was David Blunkett’s misuse of his office to fast track the visa application of Ms Quinn’s nanny sufficiently serious, in the context of the other criteria that he should have been forced to resign?

If there are any ministers who could consistently answer yes to questions one and two it would be surprising although I’m sure that some could answer yes to three to five. However, because there is never discussion about these areas of a minister’s character, integrity and performance we simply don’t know. If we are to avoid the ludicrous scenes surrounding David Blunkett of the last forty-eight hours it’s about time we found out.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Happiness is.... [book review]

We all desire happiness and spend a lot of our time looking for it. Jon Piper spends over two hundred pages arguing that not only do we look for it in the wrong place, but that we don’t look hard enough. Piper quotes CS Lewis:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
From this foundation Piper argues that in everything we do, whether it be spend money, pray, help others or praise God that we should aim to enjoy it. If we’re not enjoying it we are dishonouring God.

The book is clearly aimed at those who think that if you’re enjoying something you’re being selfish and not doing good. Duty and misery are the emblems of a do-gooder. Most of us probably don’t operate in this way, but it’s a useful reminder that if we give and help others purely out of a sense of duty it is likely to be embittering and we’re probably missing out somewhere. As far as the Bible goes Piper is on steady ground – the psalms tell us to ‘delight in God’, Paul exalts us to be a ‘cheerful giver’. This is no shallow outward conformity, but a deep rooted understanding that a good God created each of us and that we are incomplete and unhappy without Him.
This far, Piper is enriching and a reminder that doing good is a win-win situation, that in a moral economy there are no zero-sum gains. As John Donne famously wrote ‘when the bell tolls it tolls for thee’. We are all interdependent and only complete in relationship with others and with God. When other peoples’ identity is marred by poverty, broken relationships and sin so are we.

It is with the language in Piper’s book that I struggle. Enjoyment, pleasure and hedonism all have connotations of immediacy, short-termism and seeking a ‘buzz’ out of something. God never promised anyone this life all the time and we shouldn’t be seeking it. Piper understands this, but ends up tying himself in knots trying to explain it, whilst insisting on the framework and language of hedonism. He spends much time arguing that to enjoy God that you need to feel pain, cry and go through troubles, which boils down to the absurdity that to enjoy life you shouldn’t enjoy it – an absurdity. By majoring so much on enjoyment Piper implicitly discounts the pain and struggle of the vast proportion of the world’s population and history.

His argument makes far more sense couched in the language of underlying fulfilment and contentment. This doesn’t preclude joy, but allows for the pain and sense of injustice that we need to feel if people are to transform society rather than live in a happy bubble. An emphasis on a long term underlying fulfilment and delight would bring out the point that in order to pursue justice and compassion that is pleasing to God we must also seek completeness and our own happiness in God. Yet, by insisting on the framework and language of hedonism Piper skews his argument and partially hides the inspiring, intriguing and yes, delightful messages contained in ‘Desiring God’.

Desiring God was first published in 1986.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Know Thyself

Tony Blair set off for Washington today to try and convince George Bush to sign up to his anti-poverty agenda for Africa. They’ll argue and probably disagree on how much aid and debt relief is needed, but also on what strings should be attached to those receiving aid. Conditionality is as old as aid and debt relief itself. It’s partly a consequence of country’s desire to exert economic and political power and control over other countries – raw realpolitik. However, it is also the product of the West’s view of its own development.

Both George Bush and Tony Blair are confident that the way to create development in Africa to develop is to let the invisible hand do its work and let trade and economic markets do their work with minimal interference. This is the way, they argue that the West developed to be the prosperous and civilised society that it is today. If Africa could just establish the rule of law and an open system of trade then their problems would disappear. From this perspective, attaching conditions to debt relief and aid is benevolent paternalism – a nasty dose of medicine that will be good in the long run. However, all this is based on the absolute conviction that the West has developed in the best way possible.

But what if the West’s way isn’t the best way? What if economic interactions aren’t the overriding way that human relationships should be viewed? What if human happiness isn’t dependent on a nation’s GDP as figures from the UN suggest? If we take a closer look at our own development then how we view the progress of the African continent is turned on its head.

The western model of development since the early 19th century has lifted huge numbers out of poverty, made people feel safer and created half a century of peace, but has also dramatically increased economic inequality, relational poverty and environmental degradation. We should look at our own development not just through an economic lense, but also from social, political, religious and cultural perspectives.

Bearing this in mind should inspire humility in our approach to international development. Bush and Blair should not be forcing people to follow our own, flawed development path, but offer to help find a different way forward. If they do so they may find that their own perspective worldviews develop and the strings they end up attaching to aid and debt relief will be very different.

If you want more info on alternative pespectives to development I recommend dipping into 'walking with the poor' by Bryant Myers. It's quite hard going, but an inspiring read.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Hands up if you want a debate!

‘Would those who would like to discuss whether or not we have a debate please raise your hands now?’ Listening to the news this week I thought I’d been transported back to the Students’ Union. People from across the political spectrum were arguing about whether or not we should talk about abortion. Each morning I would turn on the radio anticipating that the debate would actually have started. Each morning I was disappointed. Just another hand raised in favour of debate.

If and when a debate does start let’s hope it’s a proper one. The early signs are not encouraging. The focus has been on whether the law should allow abortions at 24 weeks, 22 weeks or 20 weeks. This is tinkering around on the edges based on an unspoken consensus that a) we shouldn’t abort babies who might survive apart from their mother with the help of science and b) we shouldn’t abort babies who look like babies. The fact that if the parents waited another couple of weeks it would survive / look like a baby seems to be conveniently forgotten. If it was remembered the discussion seems almost irrelevant. A debate based on this consensus is a debate on quicksand.

We need an alternative starting point. A simple statistic can provide it. In the UK in 2003 were 695000 births and 181600 abortions. Factor in an estimated figure for miscarriages and 19% or almost one in five of recorded pregnancies in the UK is aborted.1 Whatever your view on a women’s right to choose or a baby’s right to life everyone should be able to agree that are too many abortions happening in this country. Whether a woman or couple choose to abort a baby or not the psychological trauma involved is huge and often life long.

I’m not sure I am in a position to tell a woman or couple whether or not they should have an abortion in a unique and difficult circumstance that they find themselves in. I do know that we need to find ways to reduce the number of women that face that choice in the first place. If we’re going to have a debate, these are the things we need to be talking about.

1. There are no official statistics on miscarriages, although approximately one in eight pregnancies miscarry, mostly before ten weeks.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Stories of Grace

2005 is the twentieth anniversary of the musical Les Misérables, based on the epic book by Victor Hugo. What is it that continues to appeal? The music is fantastic, but if you want staging and lighting there are many other performances that would up stage Les Misérables’ simplicity. It is the story, which starkly contrasts the costly, unlimited grace of the central character Valjean, with the harsh, uncaring, measured justice of Javert that continues to enthral.

Valjean’s story starts when he steals some candlesticks from a kindly bishop, but is caught. When the police arrive the bishop says that they were a gift and then gives Jean Valjean the rest of his silver. A reformed and almost unbelievably godly man Jean Valjean is placed in the maelstrom of suffering and poverty of 19th Century Paris. He then helps a prostitute, rescues a man trapped under a cart and saves the life of his future son in law at risk of his own life. Finally, he forgives and spares the life of his decades long-persecutor, the officious and just policeman, Javert.

The story is inspiring, but ultimately remote. The grace so costly, the poverty so harsh that it seems difficult to relate to our own times and place.

In his book ‘the Idiot’ Fydor Dostoevsky, like Victor Hugo, parachutes pure grace into a harsh landscape, this time full of ‘empty headed people’ obsessed with money, looks and power. The reader watches as different elements of St. Petersburg high society misunderstand, are broken by or refute the accepting, forgiving, innocent, unmanipulative actions of the ‘simply good’ Prince Mishkin.

In the Idiot, the moments of grace seem more within our grasp than in Les Misérables. The characters deficiencies are writ large, but Prince Miskin’s actions are smaller, accumulating gradually rather than immense actions of a superhero.

In ‘the Terminal’ Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a man speaking no English becomes trapped within a busy, brash US airport. Passengers push past, always in a hurry and the staff are unhelpful and rude. In this arena Navorski helps passengers with their bags, stops them from slipping on wet floors and slowly breathes humanity into the staff.

In many ways ‘the Terminal’ is just another formulaic feel good film, but it also translates some of the stories of grace that we find in Dostoevsky and Hugo into a modern setting. (This is probably the only time you’ll hear a Spielberg movie compared to Dostoevsky, so enjoy it while you can.) The airport typifies our individualist, time poor, consumerist culture just as Dostoevsky compounds the wretchedness of St. Petersburg society and Hugo rubs in the poverty of nineteenth century Paris. Like Myshkin, Navorski steps in completely powerless and ignored, but with time and a natural inclination to serve. His actions are everyday and almost unnoticed – this is grace writ small.

Where are the small acts of grace in our society today? Grace is both hard to define and hard to find. In his book ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace?’ Philip Yancey starts by saying that he wants to ‘convey grace rather than explain it’. We need stories of grace if we are to understand, experience, enjoy and pursue it. We need the mountain peaks of Jean Valjean which can inspire and clarify our vision. But we also need stories in the foothills where we live our daily lives. If you’ve got any stories of grace, the smaller the better, please post them up or email them – I’d love to hear them.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Tea in Westminster

Last Monday the prayer and campaign network SPEAK launched its creative petition the ‘Big Dress’. For four years SPEAK have been collected 15cm2 squares of fabric with people’s pictures, prayers and words calling for trade justice. These have been sown together to make a huge, tent like patchwork dress which was erected in Berkley Square, London. The Bishop of Barking led a fantastic, moving and visual service of repentance for the UK’s and our own individual failure to pursue justice in world trade. This was followed by a mass lobby of MPs at Westminster calling for accountability of UK based multi-national companies.

I was amazed by how easy it is to lobby your MP. We queued up for ten minutes at St.Stephen's entrance, before bypassing the streams of tourists and making our way to the central lobby. There you fill in a short green card explaining why you want to speak to your MP who is then legally obliged to speak to you if the House is in session, he or she is there and not speaking in a debate. You don’t have to make an appointment (although this helps) – you can just turn up. Although my MP wasn’t able to speak to me his researcher came down almost immediately and spoke with us and agreed that we should set up a meeting with the MP in our constituency. Others spent between five minutes and an hour with their MP, one group getting a cup of tea in the House of Lords!

So next time you’re in London pencil in a discussion with your MP on an issue of your choice over a cup of tea in the palace of Westminster!

To find out who your MP is visit

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Does Michael Howard have a point?

Last week Michael Howard decided that his party was going to “tell the truth about immigration”. He quoted the government’s community cohesion panel in his speech on asylum:
"… inward immigration does create tensions … communities will perceive that newcomers are in competition for scarce resources and public services. The pressure on resources … is often intense and local services are often insufficient to meet the needs of the existing community, let alone newcomers"

For the vast majority of people in the UK the arguments and worries about asylum and immigration have no direct bearing on their daily lives. Their concerns and fears come through media coverage and a vague feeling that Britain isn’t ‘as it should be’. For instance, there were only625 people who described themselves as from an ethnic minority in Worthing, a town of 100 000 people, in the 1990s.

In contrast, almost seventy-five percent of all asylum seekers come to London. Asylum seekers, refugees, legal and illegal immigrants tend to end up in poorer parts of London where they can get support from their communities.
These are the areas that have the highest unemployment, lowest life expectancy and where it’s virtually impossible to register with a GP. The housing situation in the London Borough of Newham is appalling. Families of five or six people living in a one bedroom flat for years are not uncommon. The standard of accommodation is low – with damp and rotting windows being the most common complaints.

Since 2001 very few asylum seekers have been housed by Councils in London. They are ‘dispersed’ to other parts of the country where there are more houses. However, when they are granted refugee status they often return to London where they can get the support and help they need from their communities. When they have been living back in London for a period of time they are then eligible for housing support from London Borough Councils. The already desperate housing situation is exacerbated by a continual rise in the population and people seeking houses. People coming into the country are therefore effectively depriving the existing community of houses.

The perception is exacerbated by the fact that all Councils divide all their housing into two lists. The first is a waiting list for long-term accommodation where you and your family, when successful, become a Council tenant, basically for life (unless you exercise the right to buy or get evicted). The second is for temporary accommodation. All Councils have a statutory duty to house people that are homeless or severely overcrowded. This has to be done immediately and so they reserve property to this end. However, because of the severe shortage temporary accommodation can become quasi-permanent. If a refugee or immigrant is eligible for help in the borough they will get offered temporary accommodation immediately of the right size for the family, like anybody else. When an overcrowded family who has been waiting for a permanent home for years (the wait for a 3 bedrooom house is about a decade) sees an immigrant family move in next door to them it looks like they have jumped the queue. Explaining that it was a different queue is unlikely to be much comfort. Reacting by labelling these people ‘racist’ without acknowledging and addressing the issues under the surface is not going to improve race relations. It’s difficult to assess exactly how much additional strain immigration (legal and illegal) and asylum put on boroughs like Newham, Haringay and Tower Hamlets, but the perception that those coming into the country put strains on housing and health services has at least some truth.

Michael Howard is also right to say that the asylum system is in chaos. It’s virtually impossible to force someone to leave the country after their asylum claim has failed. Disappearing into the cash economy is easy, especially in London. It’s virtually impossible to track down illegal immigrants in the same situation – the government has no idea how many there are. Unscrupulous private landlords will accept illegal immigrants knowing that they can charge exorbitant rents for atrocious properties, because they can’t complain. The government has no idea how many illegal immigrants there are in the country. When in the country for more than a couple of years illegal immigrants will normally try and ‘go legal’ with varying degrees of success. Periodically the government offer amnesties to failed asylum seekers (the last one was issued by David Blunkett in 2004) that have ‘disappeared’ and eventually their position is regularised.

Michael Howard is right. Illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers do put extra strains on demands for housing, health and education services in parts of the UK. However, it is also true that Britain can easily afford to allow all genuine asylum seekers into the country. We should be able to welcome asylum seekers and assume their stories of rape, torture and imprisonment are true. Why do the Home Office arbitrarily decide that people can’t stay because they ‘don’t have the evidence’? Why are we talking of imposing quotas on Asylum? Why do we leave a relatively small number of poorer areas to cope whilst the media and ‘middle England’ worry aimlessly from the sidelines about the threat to ‘Britishness’ or tut tut at growing racism?

The answer is that that it’s just too complicated and uncomfortable. We need to be pouring our time, effort, political will and money into resolving the problems of housing, health, the black market in our inner city areas. We need to find ways actively breaking down barriers between different races and religions. This doesn’t mean working only for tolerance but also the much more costly works of building relationships between people in different communities, whilst recognising the diversity or those different communities. We must demand that our hotel workers and cleaners are paid a just wage whatever part of the world they are from and be prepared to accept the rising cost of our own daily lives. We need to face up to our responsibilities in the developing world – to deal with debt, unfair trade and aids, to actively encourage good governance.

Until we as a nation start tackling the issues behind immigration and asylum rather than name calling, immigration and asylum policy will always be a fudge and a bodge job. Michael Howard’s reactionary, headline grabbing ‘solutions’ wouldn’t help the situation any more than the current governments. They wouldn’t prevent illegal immigrants entering the country and they wouldn’t relieve the acute problems in the boroughs most affected. Michael Howard may have a point, but he’s still not “telling the truth about immigration”.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Mediation for parents

Yesterday’s government announcement on reforms to family law were desperately needed. I’ve been surprised by the number of fathers I’ve met in the past few months who, however hard they try, are having problems getting any access to their children.

Conciliation seems a sensible step, and is the first time, as far as I’m aware, that a anything resembling a reconciliation and mediation programme has gone mainstream in the public sector on this scale. Thames Valley Police have been leaders in restorative justice (a form of conflict mediation between victim and offender) since the late 1990s. Mediation has also been used by some local authorities to try and deal with neighbourhood disputes, young offenders and schools – see for more information. A number of conflict mediation charities exist throughout the country (e.g. the Christian inspired Conflict and Change) , from which local authorities sometimes ‘buy in’ expertise.

However, my (relatively limited) experience suggests that their services are not well integrated and tend to be called upon as a last resort, by which time it’s too late.

Mediation between parents to try and avoid damaging and painful court cases must be welcomed as a positive step. Whether a service run by Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), a court based organisation, are the right people to run mediation I’m unsure. By the time people have applied to the courts in many cases it may already be too late and conflict mediation can be driven by those wanting to cut costs. A lot will depend on the expertise already existing within Cafcass and their ability to adapt to their new role.

As usual all the announcements yesterday focused on ‘what’s best for the children’. Protecting children is of course hugely important, but the rhetoric conveniently sidesteps and ignores what happens to the parents involved in the breakdown. The fact that relationship break-down is one of the most stressful events that can happen in your life, causing knock on effects to friends, jobs, the economy, mental health and the NHS, parents are simply left to ‘reap what they sow’.

The long term aim must be to develop a culture where asking for input into your long-term relationship or marriage becomes the norm, not just for those whose relationship is on the verge of breaking down. Relationship building is a core value in many churches (and other faith groups) , who potentially have a great to deal to offer wider society. Christians that have them don’t need to be defensive about the relationship-building skills that we can bring to people in our towns and cities. I don’t know anyone who wants to grow up as a single parent or see their relationship fail. A survey by the Scottish Council Foundation ‘identified [a parent’s] highest priority, both during pregnancy and after the baby is settled at home, as having the full support of partners and family members’ . However, the question is how churches can move beyond ‘marriage courses’ (excluding large segments of the population) and assist those wanting to work at long-term relationships, whilst still upholding the importance, benefits and sanctity of marriage.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Tsunami thoughts

Like everyone else I’ve been encouraged by the response in the UK to the horrific tsunami in South East Asia. Peer pressure is usually used with negative connotations, but the past few weeks illustrate its positive aspects. It’s become expected that businesses and websites should collect funds and publish the contact details of the DEC. Between Christmas and New Year that callers were contacting Radio 5 Live to ask how much supermarkets were donating in the crisis. A spokesman from Tesco was hauled onto the programme and held to account. The ‘moral economy’ has been re-emerging for a few years now, but this is another boost as it continues to gather pace.

In the same way, politicians have been assessing the political importance of the public sympathy for the tsunami. For the first time, commentators are arguing there are votes ‘in’ international aid. In fact, there’s been some votes in international aid since the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Local MPs are always willing to meet church groups that are campaigning on aid, because they know that they are likely to vote. However, the government won’t see the tsunami’s political import purely in terms of votes. During the Jubilee 2000 campaign Gordon Brown urged campaigners to keep the pressure on him to act. Public pressure is one way to create political capital for politicians with the right ideas, but who need to clear ‘blockages’ of vested interest in the system. Hence the chancellor’s and the UN’s recent attempts to divert some of the political capital from public sympathy over the tsunami to assist in the Aids, debt and trade problems of Africa.

I’m not convinced this will work, because I think one of the reasons (although not the main one) that the British public were so generous in response to the tsunami is because no one was to blame. Debt, unfair trade and poverty in Africa are man-made problems. Their root causes lie with exploitation by the west of these nations and our consciences are touched with guilt at the thought. Even disasters caused by droughts or floods leave a niggling feeling of doubt in our minds as the spectre of man-made pollution and global warming springs to mind. If it’s our fault something is happening responding requires a change of behaviour on our part to restore justice. The politics is messy and repentance is costly. The tsunami gave the opportunity for grief, generosity and empathy unbridled by guilt.

Such emotions are God-given. Responding in this way makes us, as a nation, more like God wants us to be. The church needs to find ways of fostering and encouraging this into gifts that we practice regularly in the UK. In a couple of weeks the tsunami and it’s devestating aftermath with disappear from our screens. What ways can the church find of keeping interest alive, of providing a valid outlet and opportunity for people’s interest and feelings? I don’t yet have answers to that question, although the possibility of churches initiating links with churches or other faith groups in affected areas springs to mind. If churches across a UK town had the courage and vision to make links with a town in say, Sri Lanka over time it should be possible to draw in schools, businesses and local Councils into a connection that could be fruitful for all involved.

Jerry Springer

The outrage of Christians at the Jerry Springer Opera worries me. I’m desperate to see Christians have the confidence to engage in public life and politics (small p), but this type of target is a red herring. Many Christians who wrote to the BBC did so with the best of intentions – to stand up for Jesus in a society that has forgotten Him. But to the rest of the country it makes us look defensive, over sensitive and interested only in protecting ourselves. If we are to engage distinctively with our society we must defend and raise our voices for others. There are more than enough pressure and lobby groups shouting their own interests.