Saturday, December 16, 2006

Women or prostitutes?

The horrific murders in Ipswich have led to a debate in the media about how the people killed should be described. Many people have said that the newsreaders shouldn’t say ‘5 prostitutes have been murdered’ because the word ‘prostitute’ labels them negatively. The word ‘women’ should be used to emphasise that these people had homes, families and cares just like everyone else. Others have argued that the fact that the women were prostitutes is a central part of the story – it is prostitutes that have been targeted. Both are right: there is a temptation in all of us to strip people of their humanity by using derogatory labels (gypsies, commies, niggers etc), but the press need to communicate the story. Perhaps ‘five women working as prostitutes’ should be used?

This formulation is also problematic. Should prostitution be described as ‘work’? Work implies that society recognises prostitution as a valid way of making a living. Could someone working as a prostitute be one of Tony Blair’s ‘hard working families’ receiving working tax credits and the minimum wage? The International Union of Sex Workers wants to see prostitution classed as a proper job with employment protection. I have heard a number of contributions in the news recently from groups representing or supporting sex workers who have implied that women have to work the streets to provide and support their children in the same way that others go to work.

This is nonsense. It can never be beneficial for any child to have a mother working in prostitution. Working as a prostitute is physically dangerous, chaotic and destroys your sense of self-esteem and self-image. It is not a freely taken life ‘choice’ and should not be seen as a ‘job’ in the normal sense. No UK national has to work in prostitution purely for financial reasons – the government provides child benefit, child tax credit and maternity grants as well as housing if you have children. The majority of UK women working as prostitutes are there because they need to sustain a crack or heroin habit – a dependence that unscrupulous dealers or family members may have encouraged. Women may feel they are stuck, fearful of pimps or family members or unable to escape their addiction.

The housing charity Shelter found in their report on sex workers that: “While society may view prostitution as the biggest problem for these women, the women themselves relate it to their homelessness, drug use, and lifestyles characterised by poverty, chaos, and desperate choices.” We should be supporting women working as prostitutes to escape their chaotic, dangerous lives. This is never easy as women may need years of assistance to escape the cycles of fear, dependence and poverty. There are many voluntary organisations that do work with women on the streets such as UTurn in East London, Streetreach in Doncaster and Real Choices in Manchester and these need extending and funding. It was heartening to hear that Suffolk Police are now working with the local Council to house women on the streets, voluntary organisations who offer harm reduction and support and have themselves set up an emergency fund to deal with basic living needs and so are ‘slowly dealing with the reasons that women need to be on the streets in the first place’. It is sad that it takes five murders to produce such a well-coordinated response.

The media and society at large must avoid labelling women who are prostitutes as if they are a ‘dirty’ sector of society - different to us or unreachable. Through voluntary organisations at local level we must support women stuck in prostitution and help them recover their sense of freedom and self. Prostitution should not be described as work. It is life driven and marred by dependence and abuse.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Perfect Daily Express.

It's just a pity they didn't try a bit harder and get the migrant scare story in earlier than page 7.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Should we renew our Nuclear deterrent?: Two arguments based on different attitudes to risk

1: The minimise risk argument

“I believe climate change is, without doubt, the major long-term threat facing our planet.” Tony Blair, February 2006

“Terrorism is the greatest 21st century threat.” Tony Blair, November 2003

The two greatest threats to the security and stability of our planet and the UK are climate change and extremist-Islamic terrorism. The rise in global temperature of anywhere between 2 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century will cause flooding, starvation and migration on an unprecedented scale unless we act now. Dirty bombs or biological terrorist attacks could destabilise the world’s economy and prompt retaliatory attacks which could plunge the planet into a growing cycles of violence. In this framework how do we decide whether or not to renew the UK’s nuclear deterrent?

Our current system of approximately 200 trident missiles based in four vanguard submarines is due to expire in the mid-2020s. It will have cost us £15bn in today’s prices to acquire (about £0.5bn for every year of service) and between £1.2bn and £2.2bn per year to maintain. Costs of upkeep are budgeted at 3 and 5.5% of the MoD’s annual expenditure and come out of the department’s standard budgets. As a comparison the annual budget of the NHS in 2007/8 is predicted to be £105.6bn, a bill exceeded only by Social security expenditure. A new system would cost around £20bn, again probably for a lifespan of around thirty years in addition to an ongoing maintenance budget. It is clear that if we want a new system or we wanted to extend the lifespan of trident we could afford it.

But is it worth the money if it is not addressing the two main threats that face our planet? Should we not be prioritising huge investment in research into clean energy sources and invest resources to protect us from terrorism and address root causes around the globe? Nuclear weapons do not contribute anything to dealing with either of these threats – against whom would we retaliate if an Islamic extremist drove a barge up the Thames and detonated a nuclear device on it? Some will argue that it is not possible to know the threat that we will face in thirty years time from an authoritarian Russia, a dominant China or another state. Old fashioned interstate warfare may be out of fashion, but is likely to return in the future. We need to maintain our deterrent for such a future to ensure that we are not bullied in international affairs by those that retain nuclear weapons. There is a possibility that we could retain a ‘virtual nuclear arsenal’; that is we would retain a stock pile of fissile material without having any warheads. We could revive our nuclear weapons capability within 6-24 months. The problem with this idea is that we would not have a delivery system available – we have no plans for suitable aeroplanes (e.g. stealth bombers) and if we decommission trident, no submarines. It is a truism to say that we don’t know what the future holds, but again it comes down to an issue of priorities. If after we’ve worked out what we need to spend on climate change and international terrorism we feel we can afford a trident replacement it should be pursued.

2: The maximise peace argument

The argument for retaining the nuclear deterrent is based on the concern that if other nations have it then we need it in order to ensure that unscrupulous states cannot threaten us with weapons with no fear of reprisal. Yet everyone, including those who support maintaining a nuclear deterrent agree that we should move towards a world without nuclear weapons. Although multilateral arms reduction has significantly reduced the size of some nation’s arsenals (noticeably the USA and Russia, but also the UK) no state that has possessed nuclear weapons capability has ever renounced it (South Africa never tested a nuclear weapon) and there seems to be no likelihood of it happening in the near future through multilateral negotiations.

For the UK to renounce the nuclear deterrent would be an historic move and allow Britain to commit itself to leading the way to push for the world that we all want where we don’t think that we might have to blow each other up. Giving up the deterrent would need to be seen as a first step as we committed ourselves to ‘making peace with as much effort as we put into going to war’ (Ron Sider). To unilaterally renounce our nuclear deterrent would be a risk, but it carries the possibility of a huge peace dividend in the long term. It would be a calculated risk. It is never comfortable to do something different and lead the way. It is always easier to keep the nuclear deterrent because everyone else has, but history is not made by people or nations that don’t have the vision to challenge the status quo. The principle behind argument 1 is to maximise and manage our safety within existing political boundaries, but doesn’t believe that it’s possible to push back those boundaries and deal with the root causes of our fear. Unilaterally disarming would be a prophetic action by a nation in that we would show that we had a vision for a world without nuclear weapons.

It would have to be a decision by a nation. This could not be made by leaders alone, but would need to have the understanding and support of the country. If in forty years time we are being bullied by China into actions because they are threatening us with nuclear weapons if we don’t comply and we don’t have the capacity to retaliate, we as a nation need to be able to say that we took the decision to disarm understanding the risks because we believed that it was worthwhile pursuing peace.

We’re not in that place as a nation now and to be honest, I don’t know whether we will ever be in that position. It is the place of our leaders to open up the discussion to see whether the UK as a nation can be strong enough to count the cost, take the risk and resolutely pursue peace.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Ten things I would never do

I’ve been tagged to complete this blogging meme by Paul Burgin:

10. Become an accountant

9. Say that football was a better game than cricket

8. Leave my wife

7. Give up in a game of monopoly

6. Eat a tarantula

5. Wax my legs

4. Go into space

3. Stop reading

2. Say that I was 100% right

1. Complete any Top 10 blogging memes (hang on… oops)

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Faith Schools: from theology to practice

Schools are the battleground of ideas that will define the future of our society. Children will be hugely influenced by what you tell them at a young age. As a society what are we going to teach the next generations in our schools? People with strong belief systems (whether religious or secular) are therefore likely to have robust opinions about schooling and in particular faith schools. In the midst of this debate I want to set out what I consider would be a good Christian school starting with theology, moving through values to policy. I write using the Christian example, but I don’t believe that this rules out a good Muslim school. This piece is not designed to defend all faith schools or their policies and the approach here is not that of all Christian schools.

There is a strong emphasis in the Bible on ‘building God’s kingdom’ (Many of you like me who went to a C of E school will have learned the Lord’s prayer - ‘Thy Kingdom Come on Earth as it is in Heaven’ – my italics). This means that we are (very junior) partners with God in creating a society as God intended it to be before we all got tangled up in sin. In the gospels ‘God’s kingdom’ is compared to earthly kingdoms which are held together by force and coercion and God’s Kingdom which comes about through people’s free choice.

There is also an emphasis in Christianity about giving freely of the good things that we have, with no strings attached. God gave his son freely to the human race and allowed him to die and we should follow God’s example with our money, ideas, gifts and time. Therefore if Jesus says that He can give life in all its fullness and we find that to be true then Christians have a responsibility to assist and support people and communities who choose to do that.

Schools are an important building block in society and also an arena where Christians can give freely of valuable (certainly not complete) understanding of how to live life well. Crucial positive values and practices for schools can emerge from the theological roots crucial outlined above: that each individual treated as someone created with loved by God with unique gifts; a strong caring community rooted in compassion (not just tolerance or respect) for others; and modelling strong moral characteristics including self-confidence, giving selflessly and leading others wisely and honestly. For all the evil that has been done in the name of Christianity down the years there is also a strong tradition and working out of these values as part of faith down the years and within the church there is still an explicit desire to practice and live these tough values, with God’s help.

Whilst it is possible to instil these values in children in a secular school and there are many good schools with excellent head teachers and staff that do this, it is hard to do. We live in a society where learning to live well is not normally explicitly practised or desired. You cannot just turn ‘values’ on at a tap. They have to come from somewhere and they have to be practised. We all know that we’d like to be kinder; more self-assured without arrogance; wiser leaders, but if it was easier to do our country would be a lot better place to live in. I’m not saying that churches have this sorted by any stretch of the imagination, but that they are rooted in a history hundreds of years long of people who down the years have tried with God’s help to practise these values. There is also more likely to be an explicit subculture in a faith to encourage each other to learn to live well that can be passed on into a school and be a defining feature of it for many decades. A church aims to be in a community for generations; a head teacher, however good at creating a positive school culture will not.

To return then, to the principle of freely giving of what we have which is good. On these grounds selection on the grounds of faith in church schools is wrong. If, as Christians we are genuinely giving freely and sacrificially as God did then we cannot create schools just for our own children. I know that as a parent I would find this more difficult to say, but Christians should expect no favours from faith schools because of their beliefs. No selection would also rule out the sham of parents attending church to get their children in. That is bribing parents to attend church and God’s kingdom is not built by coercion.

If parents do not want to send their children to a faith school they are free to send them elsewhere and eventually faith schools or particular ones would close down. However, this is not the pattern at the moment and my experience working in London’s East End was that most parents found Christian values instinctively attractive, even if they were of no faith, nominal faith or other faiths. I have heard a number of Muslims say that they would rather send their children to a Christian school than a secular school, because of the values system and also that holding one faith can aid respect of someone holding another. The details and practice of a different faith can be worked out and taught at home and through the Mosque.

To build God’s Kingdom in society and to give freely of what we have that is good as God did. These two principles should be at the centre of all Christian faith schools. A friend of mine always used to explain a Christian community project he ran by saying that ‘faith was his motivation, not his hidden agenda’. The schooling of our children will rightly always produce passionate debates because the development and input they have at an early age is so important in who they turn out to be. My hope is that this debate will not always be as fraught as it has been in the past week as all sides seek to understand each others' motivations and make clear own agendas.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Find ‘The Squid and the Whale’ in a film of family break-up

If you’re looking for a film about sea mammals or a cute cartoon with talking fish, you’ve come to the wrong place. Maybe you should try here or here instead. If you’re more interested in a short feature about how teenage children cope with divorce then stick with me.

The Squid and the Whale focuses on one literary New York family during the traumatic first few months after separation. The film focuses on the loyalties of the two boys, Walt and Frank as they are pulled between their two trying-to-be-civil-but-not-really-managing-it parents. The parents, Bernard and Joan start out with the best of intentions about arranging an amicable split in the interest of their kids, but cannot help but say exactly the wrong thing and under a veneer of suburban reasonableness the tug of war quickly becomes more savage. Both children suffer confusion and doubt as their moral compass is spun around and writer/director Noah Baumbach perceptively captures the responses of the two different age teenagers. Angry at his mum for cheating on his dad the older Walt follows his father’s advice to ‘play the field’ and starts to make the same mistakes his father made. His younger brother’s reaction is portrayed as exhibiting itself through misbehaviour at school and running away between parents as he is unable to express the anger and confusion he feels.

Emotionally the parents are a mess, but the father especially seems to have no-one else on whom he can emotionally offload apart from his son. Expecting Walt to deal with his baggage as well as his own creates an insufferable burden. In one scene, seeing his dad sitting lonely in his new apartment, Walt feels he has to invite his dad along to a movie with his friend. Bernard then enters a relationship with one of his students as he tries to fulfil his emotional needs. The film is an indictment of the isolation and lack of community support in modern day living and also raises questions on a personal and political level about what support we can give separating parents. At the moment in the UK parents may get relationship counselling prior to break up, but following separation this normally stops and many couples get pushed unnecessarily towards solicitors and an adversarial legal set up. Many aren’t aware of the 3rd party mediation services that are available.

The film is devised as a short, intense feature and is very successful within this remit. However, it would have benefited from weaving in the story of a second family going through separation which would give Baumbach the opportunity to explore different ways parents and consequently their children handle family breakdown.

If you’ve got this far and are still wondering about the Squid and the Whale then you’ll have to go and watch this fascinating film to find out where they fit in, but don’t hold your breath looking for sea mammals.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lifting the veil?: Jack Straw’s comments articulate discomfort that we all need to address

I’ve only spoken to women wearing the veil on a small handful of occasions, but based on these meetings I have sympathy with Jack Straw’s comments last week. Over two-thirds of our communication is non-verbal and you quickly realise how much you rely on people’s facial gestures when you can’t see them. (Radio requires unique skills to do well and there is a reason why it’s not considered the ‘done thing’ to end a relationship over the ‘phone.) More than that though, because someone’s face is so much part of who they are as a person I find it deeply unsettling that people aren’t willing to share or display that individuality and sense of self. Instead they prefer to walk around incognito and stripping themselves of their individuality and personhood in terms of their relationship with the public world.

As someone with faith I respect and understand people’s desire to be completely committed to what they believe even when this is counter to the prevailing culture. However, to genuinely respect that decision rather than to merely tolerate it I need to understand and challenge women who wear the veil about why they do it and why it is an important part of their faith. This is especially important where there is a widespread belief amongst non-Muslims that wearing the veil is part of male oppression.

It’s not enough for women to say ‘I wear the veil because it’s part of my religion’ – not all Muslim women wear the veil. Why is it an integral part of the faith – how does it aid surrender and obedience to God? Is it an outward symbol of a deeper understanding or truth about who God has made us? How does wearing the veil fit within different tenets of Islam’s understanding of the roles and interaction between men and women? How does it enhance and contribute towards the quality of relationships within the Muslim Community? What exactly is the connection between the veil and relationships between men and women? Such questions are primarily for discussion within Islam, but non-Muslims should not shy away from asking searching questions in a spirit of understanding and engagement, especially on the basis of good one to one relationships.

Women have the right to wear the veil, but without hearing from Muslim women who make this choice directly I find it a puzzling decision when it hides and strips away such an important part of women’s individuality and personhood. Jack Straw’s comments are welcome and timely and articulate many people’s vague sense of discomfort (Listen to the radio phone-ins the day after). Straw’s actions can spark a more honest dialogue that can build bridges between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Women who wear the veil have a responsibility to explain their decision rather than respond to these measured comments as if making them was a threat to them practicing their beliefs. The rest of us must seek a genuine respect of others beliefs and ask the right questions.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Morals or safety at the Israeli embassy – we need to know

The media has got themselves in a muddle over the case of PC Alexander Omar Basha, the Muslim police officer moved from guarding the Israeli Embassy. The Sun, which broke the story this morning said that PC Basha was moved on ‘moral grounds’. The Muslim Association of Police Officers have said the reasoning was based on the officer’s ‘welfare’. (See this BBC news article.)

Scenario 1: Credible and specific threat – moved on grounds of welfare

If PC Basha has received credible and specific threats against the welfare of himself or family because he is guarding the Israeli embassy (presumably from Muslims who are against Israeli foreign policy) then his reassignment could be considered on safety grounds. If PC Basha was to publicly state that he was to remain guarding the Israeli embassy despite threats this would be a courageous gesture. It would demonstrate that he believed that violence towards any party in the Middle East was unacceptable even if he believed that Israeli foreign policy was fundamentally flawed. However this decision would be a difficult personal one and he should not be blamed if he decided not to take it.

Scenario 2: No credible and specific threat – moved on moral grounds
If PC Basha has received no specific or credible threat against himself and has been moved only on moral grounds then this is unacceptable. It indicates that either he is a pacifist and does not believe in the use of force (in which case he cannot be a police officer) or it indicates that he believes that people have the right to physically attack the Israeli embassy and those working there and representing Israel. Even if PC Basha fundamentally opposes and objects to Israeli foreign policy (the Sun claims that he has taken part in anti-war marches over the recent conflict in Lebanon) he cannot even tacitly support individual’s desire to harm Israeli property or people. He must either resign or guard the embassy.

It’s still not clear which scenario is in play. We need clarification from the Met as soon as possible.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

There's no fire without smoke

After the overwhelming lead taken by Common Sense at the fire fuelled Bridport Carnival in August it seems that Red Tape and Bureaucracy have pulled a goal back in Watford.

(Thanks to Kerron Cross for highlighting this)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Top four ways to smuggle drugs into prison

1. In your backside. Prison trousers are specially designed to be strong and small to try and prevent people discreetly slipping drugs into…and through their pocket at visiting time.

2. In a birthday card.
Cut horizontally through a thick birthday card and lay your drugs as flat as possible inside the card before resealing the corner.

3. Swallowed – enough said.

4. In your shoe. Cut out a square inside your trainers before placing your packet inside and gluing it down again. Wear insoles for extra cover.

When someone is desperate and determined enough to get their heroine, cocaine or cannabis into prison it’s almost impossible to stop them. You can search prisoners, but you can’t check every piece of mail and you certainly can’t search every visitor. Even if the prison service had more resources it wouldn’t be worth spending them on tightening regimes to try and cut out drugs in prison completely.

Any resources would be far better spent on helping prisoners who want to ‘do their rattle’ and come off heroine whilst they are inside. Prison is lonely and can be a time of reflection. In the space that prison can provide we should be offering more people courses to help them understand when and why they use in preparation for when they get out.

Many prisoners come out with good intentions which are very quickly dashed, because either they:
- Don’t know how to cope with the uncertainties of freedom and so turn back to the only way they do know to regulate their fears.
- Have nowhere to live on leaving prison - the problems mount up and using is the obvious escape.

Prison is necessary to protect the public from a relatively small number of individuals who are a danger to the public. But for many a ‘short, sharp, shock’ simply disrupts any progress that is being made on the outside and leaves prisoners back at square one when they get out: without a secure or any home, in a cycle of drug use, theft and user-on-user violence.

Things are improving slowly. For instance, there is greater communication between the probation and prison service than there used to be and there is some preparation for outside life when you’re inside, but there is still a long, long way to go. There is frequent worried headshaking in the media that drugs are readily available in prison. They’d do better to be concerned that the help and preparation needed for successful living in mainstream society is not.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Uncle Tom's Cabin: Part one

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe joins a long list of novels which are written with the primary motive of persuading the reader of the validity of a political cause – in this case for the abolition of slavery in the US in the mid nineteenth century. In most cases the cause quickly overwhelms the artistic integrity of the novel and it plunges into obscurity. What great works of fiction are remembered from the Russian and Chinese socialist literature of the 1930s and 1940s? Occasionally the novel and the cause dovetail to produce a seminal work that takes its place in literary and political history. Tolstoy wrote for overtly political purposes in the late 19th century as he longed to see a reformed Russia. The Women’s room by Marilyn French published in 1977 had an impact on the lives of millions of women, but by most accounts (I haven’t read it) is an extremely good novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin deserves to join such exalted company, despite the occasionally overbearing authorial voice and some shoddy sentence construction.

That it had a huge impact on 1850s America is beyond question. When Abraham Lincoln was introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe he is famously attributed as saying "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!". The narrative of the book is compelling. Stowe traces the journey of two slave heroes (George Harris and Uncle Tom) through the subtleties and harshness of slavery. George Harris attempts escape to Canada with his family who are about to be sold individually to different owners. Uncle Tom hates his slavehood, but chooses to submit to his masters out of Christian piety (and strength?), with painful but dramatic results.

Where Harris’ story takes him out of slavery, Tom’s story burrows right to its core and explodes it. It is therefore with the journey of Tom that Stowe is most concerned and as a Christian it is also the more challenging. Stowe’s primary concern is the affects of slavery on both master and slave. Through Tom’s journey we see slavery through the eyes of the benevolent, but apathetic owner (St.Clare), the northern visitor (Miss Ophelia) and the tyrant master (Simon Legree). Stowe is critical of them all and the social groupings they represent. St. Clare alleviates his conscience by treating his servants well. He does not beat them and believes slavery to be wrong, but is not prepared to step out publicly and challenge his peers or rock the boat. Through the relationship of Miss Ophelia and the abused black girl Topsy, Stowe brilliantly uncovers the distaste and prejudice that many northerners felt towards black people whilst still calling for abolition. Stowe expects a lot of her characters – personal piety and a comfy, lukewarm, socialised morality is not enough. The true Christian is expected to risk exclusion, jeering, financial, familial and social disaster in actively and wholeheartedly challenging the evil they see around them.

In this, it is Tom that leads the way. As he enters the hell of Legree’s plantation he battles to keep his faith and the souls of all those around him (both owner and slave) alive. For Stowe slavery is a system that has so brutalised and marred the identity of all involved that the participants are little more than animals. Formerly ‘good people’ like Cassy are sucked into the swamp of anger and violence and inadvertently try and pull Tom down with them. To triumph Tom must beat and transcend the system by refusing to play by its rules. He turns away the opportunity to ‘take his liberty’ and kill Legree for he knows that it will be a false victory that will only mar his race and sink humanity as a whole further into the pit.

The power and pull of a brilliantly crafted story of an unlikely hero fighting for his and others’ souls makes this a great novel, despite the intermittent weaknesses in style and prose. The story of George Harris has only two endings: either makes it to safety or he doesn’t. The journey of Tom seems to take on cosmological significance as it cracks open and draws out the central venom of slavery and it easy to see, one hundred and fifty years later, why Uncle Tom’s Cabin shook America to its core.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Bridport Carnival: Common Sense 1400 - Red Tape and Bureaucracy 0.

Last week I attended the Bridport Carnival and torchlight procession. After all the floats with dinosaurs on and majorettes had paraded past, over 1400 people wound their way down increasingly narrow roads to the beach half an hours walk away. The vast majority of people, whether aged five or eighty five carried foot long ‘torches’ which would have made more than ample flame throwers. In an era where putting on any kind of public attraction requires a hefty tome of insurance policies, health and safety assessments and permits I was amazed that the event had been allowed to happen. The list of authorities (District Council, County Council, Fire brigade, police etc) who could have objected on safety grounds would have as long as a fully lit torch. But even as the streets narrowed and became more crowded common sense prevailed. One stupid ten year old boy did throw his still flaming torch into the hedge, but almost immediately a member of the public went over to extinguish it. Numerous lads had to drop their torch in an amusing hurry after encouraging their light to flame rather too extravagantly, but no damage was done.

Of course the event was well planned and there was an ambulance on hand, but marshals kept a low profile and the success and safety of the event was dependent on the community’s common sense as a whole. People not only took responsibility for their own actions, but also kept an eye on others and were prepared to intervene if necessary. Health and safety rules and regulations are in part a response to the breakdown in communal common sense. If enough people aren’t prepared to take responsibility for those around them then, yes, ‘there will always be one that spoils it for everyone’. The Bridport Carnival showed that it doesn’t have to be like that, but that it’s in everybody’s hands to ensure that risky public events aren’t extinguished under the weight of bureaucracy and red tape.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Warming up the crystal ball: climate change predictions

On Tuesday the National Academy of Sciences released ‘the most detailed report yet’ outlining the effect that a rise in global temperatures of less than 2, 2-3 or over 3 degrees Celsius would have on the planet’s plant life, sea levels and rainfall.

The main scientist, Dr. Scholze reckons that at least a two degree rise in global temperatures is inevitable which he believes will cause a world wide loss of forests, increased flooding and a significant reduction in fresh water supplies. The UK Hadley centre, a leader in climate change research estimates that a 3 degree rise would put 400m people at risk of hunger, and half the world population at risk of flooding.

These studies stick to changes in the natural world, but I thought it would be an interesting exercise to make an educated guess on what changes of a 2-3 degree rise by the middle of the century would mean for us living in the UK. I’ve tried to steer clear of being alarmist and these are just guesses so I’d be interested in your predictions.

In 2050 I think that:

1) We will live in fortress Britain. Climate change is going to create numbers of refugees unprecedented in world history. Millions will be forced to leave land that has become inhabitable because of drought, salination of water supplies or wars over ever more limited fresh water. In constant fear of tens of millions coming to the UK we will close our borders to all but the luckiest of refugees and enforce military defence measures to put off would be illegal entrants.

2) Thousands of older people will have died in summer heat waves. In the summer of 2003 in France, tens of thousands of older people died as a direct result of the heat wave. By 2050 thousands will of older people will die in more frequent and more intense heat waves in the UK.

3) Hundreds of thousands of homes in the south and east will be uninsurable and unsellable. A 3 degree rise would increase risk of flooding by 17 times in South and East and the Thames Barrier is already being raised significantly more often than 10 years ago. Nobody (or very few people) would die, but dealing with flood damage will be a reoccurring problem.

4) Progress in the developing economies will have been wiped out. Developing economies will struggle to maintain growth went hit by more frequent and intense problems. Our ability to promote sustainable development will vanish as we try to deal with crisis after crisis.

5) Our financial affluence will have been severely dented. The economy won’t have crashed into unending depression – no one individual shock would be big enough to precipitate this. Our economic patterns will adapt and evolve and there will still be plenty of work around to deal with the effects of climate change. Some jobs may have moved back to the UK because the world will be a more dangerous and uncertain place. Supply of goods to our kitchens and living rooms from around the world will be inconsistent and regularly disrupted.

I'm in my mid 20s: I don’t expect to witness the worst of the effects of climate change. I believe I will see extremely serious flooding, drought that will kill hundreds of thousands and create millions of environmental refugees, but not on the scale of the second half of the 21st century could produce. It will be the next generation that has to deal with those catastrophes – something that’s worth bearing in mind for those of us considering having children.

To read about how I think we can alleviate climate change see my post from late June here.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Israel fights Hezbollah: An attempt to understand

I have found the last month's news very depressing. I simply can’t understand what Israel think that they are going to achieve by attacking Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Every day I get more and more angry about the destruction wrought in a recovering and increasingly vibrant Lebanon. The Middle East is an entangled spiral of complex problems which defy clear analysis, but in an attempt to understand Israel’s reasonaing and mentality in this conflict I have identified three possible underlying causes, one geopolitical, one psychological and one religious cause for the Israeli Government’s actions. Hopefully I will end at least being able to empathise with the Israeli position.

1. Geopolitical. To fight Hezbollah is to fight Iran. The links between the two since Hezbollah’s formation in 1982 are irrefutable. These are not purely funding links (although these are substantial), but also command and strategy links, which mean that all important decisions are made in conjunction with the highest members of the Iranian government. In addition the two share similar interpretations of Sh’ia ideology. Iran are the other major power alongside Israel in the Middle East. Iran is a rich, well educated country, with a much greater sense of national identity than any Arab nation. Since the 1920s Iran and Iraq have always acted as counter-balances to each other in the region, but the power vacuum in Iraq means that Iran are firmly in control of that see-saw at the moment. From Iran’s point of view the time is right to extend their economy, political and military hegemony. Until now Israel have always had two trump cards to counter the hegemony – American support and the bomb. They must be scared stiff that they’re about to lose the second. For Israel, any chance to show pre-bomb Iran that they are not to be cowed looks attractive.

2. Psychological. It is a natural instinct to want to obtain security by doing whatever is necessary to remove an enemy. The attraction of an offensive into Southern Lebanon must be considerable to the Israeli electorate. The idea of a buffer zone from Katusha rockets looks great on paper and no-one else was going to go and create it for the Israelis. One British journalist asked an Israeli in Haifa how many Hezbollah rockets had ever landed in his town in the 13 years he’d lived there before the current conflict. Answer: zero. But that’s not the point. No one wants to live in the constant fear of the front line – much better if you can to move the no man’s land into someone else’s back yard and let them deal with the consequences.

3. Religious. Long standing underlying attitudes reduce Israel's options.The Tanakh (laws, prophets and other writings that make up what Christians know as the Old Testament) is ambivalent at best about the right of other nations to exist in ‘the promised land’. Judaism has an honourable and living tradition embodied in the Tanakh of caring for the alien in the land. However, although the vast majority of Jews are not Zionists most have some belief that God grants Israel an inalienable right to eventually possess territory in the region at least partly at the expense of other people groups. For instance, the traditional orthodox stance is that Israel will not gain political control of the region until the Messiah comes. So although this view does not explicitly rule out a Palestinian land it colours the mindset and attitude which makes negotiation on land issues with neighbours interminably difficult. Therefore arguments continue not just with the Palestians, but with Syria and Lebanon over the Golan Heights and the Sheeba Farms, which have an underlying influence on the current crisis.

None of the three explanations above excuse what the Israeli government are doing, which is not only morally reprehensible, but politically pointless. Indeed its political futility makes it more morally outrageous for the deaths are utterly futile. Like other guerrilla forces Hezbollah will not be beaten by a conventional army. As all parties know without political progress we will be in the same situation in a few years. Both sides are fighting for a better negotiating position - to invert the aphorism politics will be the war continued by other means. But in all probability in a few years Israel will fight a renewed Hezbollah, guided and funded by an Iran with nuclear capability. Longer range missiles and suicide bombers will still penetrate into the day to day lives of Israelis. They will be no more secure. There is a growing movement among younger Israelis especially (witness the Israeli soldier protest petition 2002 and the grass roots movement that led to the founding of Kadima) which may challenge the underlying religious attitudes around right to land. (The Kadima's 2006 election statement is an interesting read in this regard). However, until this enters the mainstream Israelis will not live in a land of peace and justice, milk and honey.

It is obvious that Israel has been much wronged in its 60 year history. However as one of the few fully formed democratic nation state backed by the most powerful country in the world it has the responsibility to make moves towards peace and begin to unravel the knots in the Middle East. It must start by addressing the focal point of the Middle East web by recognising the majority of the pre-1967 borders and declaring its intention not to retaliate to suicide bombers and missile attacks. This is an extremely difficult, complex and risky thing to do and I did not write this entry to delve into possible solutions. It will not stop attacks on Israel immediately or even for years, but it will start to drain the poison at the centre of the boil and allow the region to address some of its other myriad problems. It is Israel’s only chance of the long term peace and security that it desires.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What authority does the Bible have and why do I keep coming back to it?

To clear up a couple of myths to start with: the conservatively minded umbrella body the ‘Evangelical Alliance’ says in its basis of faith “We believe in…The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.” Not 100% geographically or historically accurate, not a definitive guide to physics, chemistry or any other science (what did ‘science’ mean in the first century?), but ‘fully trustworthy for faith and conduct’. Faith being what people believe, conduct how people live their lives. Still a mighty big claim, I’ll grant you, but best to be clear what we’re talking about.

OK: ‘supreme authority’. This is far more problematic – what does it mean in practice? In the seventeenth century Theology used to be known as ‘the Queen of the Sciences’. It used to ‘sit over’ all the other ‘subjects’, which would derive their axioms from assumptions about theology, but be free to explore from there. Now, nobody’s claiming that the Bible says anything specifically about the failure of world trade talks this week, but it might be possible to draw principles about just and fair exchange of goods from the Bible and apply them. The same might be true of all other subjects. If God gives us minds to create, explore and discover within his creation all scientific, social science and arts disciplines become an opportunity to glorify God and know more about Him.

Notice that it was Theology, not the Bible that was Queen of the Sciences and the ‘supreme authority’. The dictionary defines theology as ‘The study of the nature of God and religious truth’. Christians turn to the Bible to find out more about the nature of God, but Christian theology involves interpreting what is in the Bible. Interpretation immediately brings the experiences and knowledge of the interpreter into play and therefore different interpretations. Some Christians in the nineteenth century tried to side step ‘interpretation’ by calling on the fallacious doctrine of ‘inerrancy’. This meant that they believed every single word of the Bible text was literally ‘true’ – whatever that meant. In a 21st century world that is used to textual criticism, genre and relativism this concept is outlandish – we take it for granted that what one word means to one person in one moment of time in one sentence can mean something completely different to the person sitting on the seat opposite. Luckily all the many writers of the Bible, who were used to dealing in myths, stories and parables to explain truth would be similarly mystified.

So the Bible needs to be placed in the context of wider enterprise of figuring out who God is called Theology – otherwise we’d be missing out on other ways God might make himself known and also disastrously ignoring our own ‘cultural spectacles’ and preconceptions. Christians tend to include amongst other things, knowledge of God through Creation; personal experience and relationship with God; and tradition. Tradition in these terms means the cumulative experiences and learning of Christians down the centuries – what Godly men and women have found to be true in their lives and those of the church. Therefore tradition is living and ever-growing – when I am inspired and encouraged to become more like Christ by Godly people around me they are part of and adding to the Christian tradition. Personal experience and relationship with God means seeing answers to prayers, listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and taking the risk to trust and follow God and finding His promise of ‘life in all its fullness’ to be true.

It’s here that the Evangelical Alliance’s belief the Bible is the ‘supreme authority’ comes into play. If I believe that God, by His Holy Spirit has told me to steal my next door neighbour’s X-Box, the Christian tradition says that the authority of the Bible telling me not to takes precedence over my personal ‘authority’ which says I should. Likewise, if there was a church pastor who told his congregation that the best way to be happy was to get rich as fast as possible, the ‘supreme’ authority of the Bible would come before the authority of ‘the church’. God can guide me and work through me, but will not speak outside of His written teachings. This sounds like an excellent idea at first - a kind of check and balance system to prevent abuse and stupidity. The Bible is unambiguous about some things, through both Old and New Testaments. For instance, it’s difficult to argue that the Bible as a whole doesn’t claim that there is One God; we are to follow Him with all our mind, heart, soul and strength and it matters to God whether we choose to do that or not. Therefore in some senses ‘the Bible’ could be treated as a ‘supreme authority’.

However, the Bible is not a ‘how to’ manual (how boring would that be). It is complex and logically paradoxical and is therefore nonsensical to talk of the Bible as a ‘supreme authority’ for all matters of faith of conduct without having some generally agreed interpretations. Supreme authority without recognised interpretation equals inerrancy. Generally accepted interpretations within the church (whether implicit or explicit) are that the Old Testament should be viewed through the ‘grid’ and understanding of the New and that it’s important to take different genres in the Bible into account. Interpretation has generally come from Church Tradition, which is the sum of Christian’s experiences and thinking down the ages, who themselves have been influenced by the Bible – the strands feed into one another and the boundaries blur.

I therefore prefer to think of the Bible not as a supreme authority, isolated from other authority, but the thickest of a number of shoots of a climbing plant, (creation, personal experience, tradition being others) woven around one another for support and strength as they grow. Not one of them could stand alone – they would all collapse and break.

This still all begs the question – ‘why do I believe what the Bible says?’. For me the simple answer is I’ve found it to be true in my life. However much I try to ignore the Bible or think that I’m bored of it I always get pulled back to the wisdom and life within its pages. That doesn’t mean that I understand it all or agree with it all or don’t find it confusing or difficult, but that it’s worth sticking with it like no other book. I frequently find stories or chapters in the Bible that in other books I would immediately dismiss or ignore, but if it’s in the Bible I’ve learned that it’s worth preserving, grappling and contending with.

A few years ago I heard Brian McClaren say that maybe what should unite our view of the Bible as a church was that we ‘take it seriously’. At the time I was horrified and couldn’t imagine a more wishy-washy way formulation. Now, although I’m not sure it’s how I would put it I have a sense of what he was getting at. If we, as a community of Christians take what the Bible seriously, really seriously - seriously enough to engage in thorough, honest studies of it bringing in all the analytical and spiritual skills we have at our disposal, to pray with it and take time with it - we invest it with authority as we communally find that it enriches our faith and lives.
Samuel Coleridge put it even better, as described in ‘The Church in an Age of Revolution’: “Coleridge held that if men would but read [the Bible] without preconceived ideas about its plenary inspiration, and see whether it did not speak to them with convincing power, they would be assured of its authority. It should be read and studied like any other literature, and then it would be found it be unlike any other literature...” (p81)

That’s my experience of the Bible. Somehow, against all the odds, God has fashioned a collection of books by working with deeply flawed human beings over thousands of years which are divinely inspired and therefore hold great authority in all matters of faith and conduct.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Welfare Reform - For the many, discussed by few.

Last week the government published a bill that will directly affect three million people in the UK, indirectly touch millions more. Its success or otherwise will have a major impact on the long term health of our economy. It received some newspaper and radio coverage, but virtually no analysis or comment. Amongst other things, the Welfare Reform Bill aims to restructure benefits for people unable to work because of ill health or incapacity.

At the moment there are two benefits for people unable to work: Incapacity Benefit is based on previous National Insurance contributions. This is worth c.£58 for the first 26 weeks rising in two stages to c.£75 per week for a single person. Income Support, is income based and worth about £57 a week for a single person. The two benefits interact in convoluted ways and the government is rightly combining the two to create one ‘Employment and Support Allowance’ (ESA). It’s also abolishing the crazy system that means that the longer you stay on Incapacity Benefit the more money you get.

However, the real problem with the system at the moment is that it draws a false distinction between fit and healthy job seekers who get assistance and support in finding work and those on IS or IB who get put on benefits and forgotten. In fact, most people who go onto IS or IB want to get back working as soon as possible. So the government is planning to implement its ‘Pathways to Work’ programme, already piloted, which gives support to people with their health and employment to get back into work. This will be compulsory for those people deemed to have a non-permanent disability and failure to cooperate will mean a cut in benefit down to Job Seekers Allowance level of around £57 per week. Those who are deemed permanently incapacity with no chance of work will be given a higher rate of benefit and not be forced to engage in support programmes.

The cost of the Pathways to Work programme is estimated at a tiny £147 million per year. My back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests that only 30 000 claimants per annum need to come off benefit for the scheme to break even. The pilot areas have almost reached that target by themselves over three years.

Compulsory attendance at interviews with the threat of benefit cuts can be both helpful and fair, as long as this ‘stick’ is wielded justly, as a last resort and as discipline not retribution. Ultimately claimants need to be aware that they are being supported by the wider public and need to take responsibility for their actions and progress. Knowing that their actions matter could be beneficial for some claimants. If no-one cares what you do and how you progress towards work you are more likely to experience apathy and low self esteem. The lost benefit could be reinstated after a period of six months if the person was ready to reengage with training.

The success of the scheme will depend on two main factors. The first is the level and type of support. Is the DWP going to be able to provide individually tailored support, built on a relationship with a personal adviser that deals with mental health and stress, through to industrial injuries and lost limbs as well as retraining? It’s a huge ask and there is little evidence to suggest that the benefits bureaucracy can change its ways. Therefore the government’s plans to contract out some of the support services to the voluntary sector, whose ethos on relationship and developing individuals skills and gifts would be well suited, is to be welcomed. If the DWP succeeds in this area it will be a monumental turnaround and worthy of the epitaph ‘A welfare system for the 21st Century’. It would mean that claimants would be able to believe that the system is there to enable and support them rather than demean and dismiss them and treat them as an unwelcome statistic.

The second success factor is far wider ranging. Can the government lead the remodeling of the economy to promote more highly skilled part time work, anti-ageist practices and government-business partnerships to retrain people? Many people on IB can’t go back to working full time immediately or sometimes ever and need to gradually build up their hours over a period of years. By not modifying business practice to encourage more part time working the private sector are missing out on good people entering their organisations. If the government is going to retrain people they will need the cooperation of businesses on a significant scale. Central government needs to equip local authorities and Job Centre Plus’ to engage in partnerships that can produce win-win solutions and offer a package of incentives to businesses to engage. These changes are partly out of the government’s hands and will rely on the vision and expertise of political and business leaders and local and national level. As the population ages this remodeling is crucial for the long term stability of our economy.

The Welfare Reform Bill may not be much talked about, but it has the potential to transform Incapacity Benefits for the good of millions of claimants, the tax payer and the economy as a whole. Whether the government and the DWP can successfully legislate for and implement the changes remain to be seen: if they do manage, we should be talking about their achievement for many years to come.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Space for doubt…especially on Saturday.

Book Review: Reaching for the Invisible God
by Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey compares ‘Reaching for the Invisible God’ as a progression from doubt towards faith, a journey which he says he himself has travelled. He addresses what it means to try and have a relationship with a God who can’t be seen or touched, often doesn’t appear to be there and is vastly more powerful than we are, but apparently doesn’t feel inclined to use much of his power.

The opening sections of the book are a place of loss and hard questions. Just as Yancey found a church who ‘formed a safe place for my doubts’ Reaching for the invisible God is a safe space to ask honest, challenging questions, knowing that you are in the company of not only the author, but Christians, atheists and agnostics down the centuries. As Yancey says ‘We all need trustworthy doubt companions’. The reader is encouraged to ask the same questions as the people in his stories: “Really, what can we count on God for”, “why does God allow horrific suffering?”, why does God not answer all our prayers and seem to remain silent when we most want Him to speak?. ‘

Doubt can eat into people, leaving them paralysed by uncertainty or it can prompt people to dig deeper for truth. Yancey doesn’t leave the reader to wallow in doubt, thrashing around in despondency; being destroyed by uncertainty. He leads us, by seeking out the lives of writers, saints and otherwise ordinary people, who have spent their lives reaching for an invisible God and asks what we can learn from their endeavours. Their lives produce a sense of reassurance (‘Yes, that’s how it’s meant to be – there is a way forward’) as well as immense challenge (‘How I’d love to be more like that’). Yancey offers a way in to the variety and richness of Christian tradition. Yet he never loses the puzzlement, mystery and amazement which keep him from offering trite soundbites and solutions. I finished ‘Reaching for the Invisible God’ feeling enriched and peaceful, but knowing that I have not just indulged in escapism. At the end of his book Yancey quotes George Steiner: “We know of that Good Friday which Christianity holds to have been that of the Cross. But the non-Christian knows of it as well. They know of the injustice, of the interminable suffering, of the waste, of the brute enigma of ending, which so largely make up not only the historical dimension of the human condition, but the everyday fabric of our personal lives…We know also about Sunday. To the Christian, that day signifies an intimation, both assured and precarious, both evident and beyond comprehension, of resurrection, of a justice and a love that have conquered death.”

By asking ‘where is God?’ Yancey catches us where we are, in between Friday and Sunday, without trying to hide either from us.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Greens - grow up

The last year has seen a huge upsurge in the intensity and urgency in the climate change debate. Hurricane Katrina, the first climate refugees in the Pacific, the next generation of nuclear power stations, dire predictions from respected scientists such as James Lovelock, and the BBC’s climate chaos series have all contributed to the sense that climate change is happening now and has the potential to be catastrophic. Many climate change scientists argue that we have thirty years maximum before we cross the ‘tipping point’ when cataclysmic climate change becomes inevitable. Some say that we may already have passed it. A year ago it was mainstream to say that environmental issues were very important, but not the number one priority. Now most prominent public figures accept that climate change is very urgent and very important. A growing number of businesses are also pushing for a greener regulatory framework to promote investment and business solutions to climate change.

The Green movement should be pleased by this new found concern, but also has to adapt to the new reality in which it finds itself. The Green movement has its roots in the new ‘identity’ personal politics that began in the 1960s, along with gender and politics of sexuality. Its emphasis has been on living sustainably, building communities and making individual ‘green’ choices such as recycling, not owning a car and buying organically. Green campaigns, directly or indirectly have predominantly been about changing individual consumer’s behaviour rather than macro green policies: do your bit – we can change the world one by one.

The problem is that China is building as many coal power stations in a year as the UK operates in total – the Chinese have plans to build a further 544 coal power stations. The growth of the car market in India makes our vehicle journeys insignificant by comparison. As James Lovelock puts it: “Nothing we do in Britain is going to make a hill of beans of difference.” Trying to reduce the number of car journeys in the UK is a bit like putting all our energy into buying egg cups for people so that they everyone can help put out a fire, whereas what we really need is to club together and get a few aeroplanes with water jets. There may be ways of avoiding the worst excesses of climate change, but it’s not going to be through each individual changing their behaviour. Instead we need to be investing billions in clean technologies such as carbon sequestration techniques and transferring them to the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians as quickly as possible. The Green movement should be lobbying our government for the biggest investment in scientific research in history. If we’re going to prevent millions of climate refugees and the world’s poorest people being hit time and again by unnatural disasters we need to think big and quickly.

But can the green movement adapt? The idea of individuals taking responsibility for their own actions by changing their own lifestyles is deeply rooted. It rests on the assumption that doing good for others is also good for our own happiness, fulfilment and contentment – it’s a win-win situation. I have no doubt that this is true, but it is not the whole picture. The Green movement has always critiqued the descent into an atomised, consumer lifestyle, but like the rest of society has reacted against organised large scale, coherent collective action. We’ve focused so much on encouraging individuals to make good environmental choices we’ve lost faith in the potency of collective political lobbying and large scale human endeavour and scientific research. It’s time to “practice the latter without leaving the former undone.” It’s time to work with businesses, engineers and research companies to find large scale solutions to catastrophic climate change, without forgoing the critique on a wasteful, materialistic society out of touch with it’s environment. It’s time for the Greens to grow up.

Monday, June 19, 2006

What would you do?

Last week the Joseph Rowntree foundation published ‘need, not greed’, a report which analysed the reasons why people take informal cash in hand work. The findings make fascinating reading for those familiar with the one dimensional government approach of enforcement and cracking down on benefit fraud. Every week I meet people who want to find legitimate work, but are frustrated by the benefits and tax system.

Andrea (20) had been out of work for a few months after personal problems before she found herself a 16 hour a week job in a hairdressers, which earned £88 per week. She wants to get back into full time work, but doesn’t yet feel she has the confidence to do so. The government estimates that she needs £45.50 a week to live on and therefore stops paying her Job Seeker’s Allowance. In addition, two thirds of the money above £45.50 a week that she earns is deducted from her Housing Benefit claim. She is £14.36 a week better off. However, because her hours and her pay vary from week to week she has to inform the Job Centre and the Housing Benefit department every time she gets paid. Sometimes she is not paid on time by her employers and she has to trust that she will not get caught out by inefficient, impersonal, unhelpful benefits administration that might delay the payments she needs for rent and living expenses.

Is it any wonder that people take on cash in hand work, whilst staying on benefits? If Andrea had taken cash in hand she would be £88 a week better off without taking the risk of being without money for weeks if her job stopped and she struggled to ensure she got the right benefit payments. There are numerous non-financial advantages to working part time rather than staying on benefits. It raises self esteem, helps people to get back into the job market, makes it easier to access privately rented housing and crucially, averts boredom and a downward spiral into lethargy and depression. When people ask me about cash in hand work I advise them that legally they must declare their earnings, but I would much rather they worked cash in hand than not at all. There are extra problems to cash in hand work over legal work– you are more liable to be exploited, be paid less than the minimum wage or not get paid at all, but in the context of the immediate minute to minute financial needs of most people on benefits these risks are worth taking.

The government is right that you can survive on the Job Seeker’s rate of £57.50 a week for over 25s, with the help of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. But imagine not being able to afford birthday cards and presents for your family; not being able to treat yourself once in a while without knowing that it will put you into debt at the end of the month; not being able to travel to visit your grandma for want of what is often just a few pounds. People don’t just want to survive, they want to live.

This is not an argument for increasing benefit rates. We need to encourage, equip and support people back into work in as many ways as possible (education, training, preparing CVs, fare to job interviews etc etc) and a higher weekly allowance will not achieve that. Neither would it reduce the amount of work in the informal shadow economy. We need to make a bigger financial differentiation between benefits and work, through significantly increasing the minimum wage and allowing a greater ‘run-on’ of benefits for the first few months when someone finds work. We also need an efficient and accurately run benefits administration. The ‘faceless bureaucrats’ which Gordon Brown and Oliver Letwin fight to cull have an important job to do in ending Benefit dependency.

The informal cash in hand economy can be an insecure and difficult financial environment, but it can be a lifesaver for those on benefits and I rarely feel the need to reach for the phone number of the government’s Benefits Fraud Hotline.

Name and some of Andrea's details have been changed.

Men - Go Crazy!

It’s still the men who are REALLY interested. It has reached a mass male and female audience for the first time as shown by the endless stream of merchandise from pushchairs to tents, but most women can take or leave football. It’s the men who drive the fever, the passion and the wall to wall media coverage. Them, and the kids. For many kids football is the only thing that they see their dads and their dad’s mates get really excited about. Kids love adults getting excited about things – most of the time they are so sensible and boring: “stop running around, be quiet, calm down, I’m trying to have a snooze”. When the football comes on kids are encouraged to shout and wave their flags and jump up and down.

We are role models to the kids around us whether we like it or not and whether we’re parents or not. The only question is what kind of role model we’re going to be. Both genders can be role models to all children, but because boys and girls (to state the obvious to anyone who has any contact with kids) are very different, boys need male role models and girls need female role models.

There have been rumblings over the last fortnight about the ‘feminisation’ of school – the curriculum now suits girls’ style of learning and teachers, especially in primary schools are overwhelmingly female. Therefore, boys, so the argument goes, are bound to underachieve, because the system is weighted against them. What we need is a curriculum that boys can learn through as well, especially in secondary school. In Australia, although boys are behind the girls in the same way as in this country in more academic subjects, they aren’t seen as struggling because of the emphasis put on sport. More hands on learning is needed through apprenticeships and other work which provide a context where older men can garner respect and therefore authority over male teenagers. Before we go any further, let me be clear: there are multiple masculinities and some boys will always excel in the school system and society, but we can’t deny that there is a problem in the way that boys are growing up, coping in schools and maturing just for the sake of political correctness.

There is a stereotype that churches are ‘feminised’ domains too. In this stereotype a few older, weak in character, possibly gay men are in charge of a female congregation who prefer flowers, hymns and touchy feely emotions where everyone is terribly nice to each other. Like all stereotypes, this one contains some truth for some churches, but is far from always being the case. The Frontline Church in Liverpool, amongst many others exhibits a great model of Christian masculinity. Men play stupid, physical, games with each other, are highly competitive and are also demonstrably passionate about God. The church meets in single sex cell groups of up to 12 people (guess where they got that idea?!) with mixed ages. Boys and younger men learn emotional literacy and character development through discipleship and being around older men. Men who show that they can love their wives, give each other a hug and cry whilst still jumping into a freezing cold river, owning five guitars or going ballistic at a football match.

The best thing about Frontline is that, although I’m sure they would be the first to say they’ve got loads to learn, they share what they’ve got. Every week they run a 'Kidz Klub’ for over 500 children with as many boys as girls, as many male leaders as female. It’s telling that it’s only possible to properly discipline and teach the kids when particular leaders have a strong relationship with them. This does happen cross gender, but especially as the boys get older it comes from men. Good relationships beget respect and respect begets authority. It is in this environment that learning takes place. Jesus offers a great model of learning, mentoring and discipleship in the gospels. The church has a huge amount of tradition, learning and expertise that it can offer society when it comes to masculinity, male role models and mentoring relationships. Let’s freely give through our churches, projects, schools and time the good news that we have and show the next generation of boys and young men that we’re crazy about more than football.

This article was first published in a free monthly newsletter called 'IMPACT' run by the Christian Political Forum, which takes a thoughtful look at political issues and events. If you want to sign up email .

Monday, June 12, 2006

Nostalgia IS what it used to be.

“If you weren’t born when and where you were, where would you have liked to have been?” In the late night discussions that followed I imagined myself taking part in the student protests in 1968 Paris, when the majority believed that it was worth trying to change things and were prepared to risk their degrees and futures to do it. You can picture my pleasure when such idle dreaming found its way to the top of the charts last week through Sandi Thom’s first single ‘I want to be a Punk Rocker’.

The song taps into the richest seams of nostalgia – yearning for a lost innocence and a rose tinted affection for previous fads and trends. However Thom’s nostalgia goes a step deeper. She yearns for a time when an individual’s actions counted and there was the freedom to imagine that a completely different and better society was possible. The implication of the song now is that we’re stuck with what we’ve got and that fighting against the capitalist and mass media dominated system is futile. We were born too late and our generation can’t be change makers.

Thom may well be speaking for a generation unhappily caught up in the corporate machine of work to live and live to work, but her defeatist attitude is wrong and self perpetuating. Firstly all those punkrockers and hippies of the 1960s and 1970s are now in their 40s and 50s and running the country. You only have to look at the background of current Labour ministers to see that the leftie protest generation made it into power – Jack Straw, Harriet Harman and Charles Clark to name but a few. This generation did make huge strides campaigning for gender and race equality and against apartheid. They also campaigned against the imperialism of Vietnam and the proliferation of Nuclear weapons. It’s great to look back on the 1960s and 1970s with a touch of nostalgia, but it’s important to remember that the idealism of the 1960s contributed to and then got swallowed up by the consumer society and family breakdowns of the 1980s and 90s.

Our generation does care – it cares about making poverty history and the Iraq war and is the first generation to grow up with the environmental movement. It cares about stable families and long lasting friendships. However it doesn’t have the confidence that it’s possible to do anything about it. Adrift in a world of individualism it doesn’t know the power of and doesn’t think it has the time for sustained grass roots organised mass action. As a result people only offer shallow commitment to ‘Make Poverty History’ hoping it will do something, but not really believing that it can. This can change. We too will become the generation that runs the country, but in the mean time we desperately need to find, grow and equip leaders and change makers so that we can show that we weren’t born too late and that radical change for the better is always possible.