Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Silver Ring Thing

The battle over school uniform must be as old as school itself. The constant low level guerrilla warfare of teenagers seeing what they can get away with before a vigilant deputy head confiscates the three ear piercings, demands that the skirt be longer or orders the hair to be tied up. It’s not often that this attritional battle puts its head above the parapet as it did last week when a sixteen year old ended up in the high court over a ring. Lydia Playfoot claimed that her silver ring which symbolised her pledge of abstinence was a religious symbol and it was therefore discriminatory not to allow her to wear it - an ingenious tactic in the teenager-teacher contest.

It is also a disingenuous one. Lydia says that the silver ring is an expression of her bible believing Christianity which teaches abstinence before marriage. However, wearing a silver ring is not an integral part to the Christian faith – it is different to the command that Jews or Muslims should not eat Kosher or Halal foods. You can express or maintain sexual abstinence without wearing a silver ring.

One of the defining factors about the new Christianity in the early centuries was that there weren’t any fixed ways that you had to outwardly conform. Paul clearly says that non-Jews didn’t have to be circumcised to become Christians as some were claiming. Instead Christians were meant to ‘circumcise their heart’ meaning that as people’s hearts were changed on the inside by the love and forgiveness of Jesus that there would be visible outward changes in their actions. However, these outward actions wouldn’t be subject to any law or dos or donts, but that the love of God would freely shine out of them. In this context, teenagers may find it helpful and prudent to them to wear the silver ring to remind themselves and others of the pledge they have made, but it is not integral to the Christian faith.

Indeed, in an environment where the school has a responsibility to promote emotional literacy, good relationships and good sexual health it may be beneficial for the school to allow the wearing of the silver ring to encourage young people to think about the implications of having sex too early. The ABC approach to sex education encourages Abstinence outside of marriage first, if not abstinence then Being in stable relationships, if not in long term relationships then use Contraception. In this framework the silver ring thing could have a positive impact both on Linda and the wider peer group if the school chose to engage with it.

However, ultimately the school must decide their policy and if there is a fairly implemented, consistent uniform policy that forbids rings then Lydia Playfoot should abide by it.

To assert a right to wear a ‘religious’ symbol runs the risk of Christians ‘defending God’ because they feel that they are being discriminated against and are feeling squeezed out and under threat. Lydia’s father said that he saw the ban as symptomatic of the onward march of ‘secular fundamentalism’. This may or may not be the case. Aggressive secularism that seeks to expunge any mention of religion in the public sphere is one element in our society; but the way to address this trend is not to defend Christians’ own rights (did Jesus defend his ‘rights’ as the son of God when he was being taken to the cross?) but to preach through actions and words the good news that through Jesus, as a society we can ‘live life in all its fullness’.

The Silver Ring Thing is a useful and innovative idea which can help young people to build healthy sexual relationships. To try and defend its position in a school by equating it with other religious symbols may have short term gains, but skews the focus of how Christians need to be engaging in our society.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Hodge on Housing

I’m a bit slow off the mark with this one, but a couple of weeks ago Labour minister Margaret Hodge, whose constituency is in East London got rounded on by her colleagues for posing the question: "In exercising that choice as an economic migrant, should they [migrants] then presume to have automatic access immediately to public social housing?" She went on to say that there was an ‘essential unfairness’ in the housing system biased against families that had grown up in the UK. The tone of Margaret Hodge’s comments make me uneasy – for a start migrants don’t have automatic or immediate access to public housing – the length of time varies on where they come from – for the EU accession countries it is 2 years; and many of immigrants I’ve spoken to don’t presume to have access to social housing at all, but expect to pay their own way for some years and are rather surprised to have access to social housing at the stage they do. Using language like this is misleading and aggravates the ‘fear of the other’ and the often defensive mindset of different communities.

Although Margaret Hodge was cak-handed in her comments, for Alan Johnson to say as he did a few days later "There is no evidence whatsoever that immigrants are causing a problem with social housing" was akin to sweeping the issue under the carpet.

No, of course immigrants don't go to the front of the queue, but three things do happen.

1. Asylum seekers get dispersed around the country and then when they gain indefinite leave to remain return to the area where their own community is to receive support – often East London. They then live in overcrowded housing and consequently gain more points on housing registers or bidding systems and significantly add to the numbers on these lists.

2. Economic immigrants come to the country and stay in private rented accommodation for a couple of years until they pass the habitual residence test and are entitled to benefits/public support. They then join the Council housing register and add pressure to it.

3. Where there are children of refugees or economic immigrants (who have satisfied habitual residence) involved the whole family is likely to be classed as priority need and get housed straight away.

These three issues significantly exacerbate the chronic housing shortages in the London area. This means that someone who has been working all their lives and paying NI contributions and then loses their job or suffers a relationship breakdown and becomes homeless the local authority can do nothing to help apart from placing them on a housing register which will take 3-5 years to yield them a property. The first time in their lives that they need the safety net of the state it does not provide. The ‘contract’ at the heart of the welfare state has failed them

It’s true that the economy benefits from diverse economic immigration, but the social infrastructure takes years and years to catch up – the issues in public housing are repeated in health services in East London. I hate to see any attacks on people based on race and long for more dialogue and story telling at community level so different communities understand where each other are coming from, but it is true that if you are a person that has been working in the UK for decades that the significant increase in immigration levels significantly reduces the chances of you getting housed quickly. To attack anyone says that as racist is not helpful, because we can’t address this housing crisis with practical solutions until we’ve acknowledged it and what many people feel is the root cause of it. If we don’t do this then the BNP will continue to look like the only party that’s dealing with issue head on.

The bulk of this post first appeared in the comments section of this post by Paul Burgin.