Friday, 25 June 2010

The strength of our democratic processes

It is really positive that the Scottish Parliament’s Information Centre has recently analysed data showing that most of the people that have given evidence to Holyrood on the Assisted Suicide Scotland Bill are against the Bill.

It is a sign of the strength of our Parliamentary process that civic society takes the time and becomes involved in debating the issues and presenting their considered viewpoint to our Parliament. That’s not the same as an “orchestrated campaign” as some have suggested. The thousands of cards delivered to MSPs today against the bill are part of a campaign encouraging people to express their voice. All of this is in true democratic practice.

The Church of Scotland has long had a position against assisted suicide because such practices devalue the life and human dignity of the individual. I would encourage anyone interested in finding out the difficulties with this Bill to go the briefing paper prepared by the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office; alternatively, Dr. Donald MacDonald has written an incisive personal perspective against the Bill. Donald is a minister, a medical doctor and a user of a wheelchair. I value his perspective. I can only applaud the wisdom of those people in Scotland who will continue to make use of their civil liberties and influence the making of our laws

The beauty of all babies

Is there ever an ugly baby?

It seems as though we are moving closer and closer to have the ability to design our babies. Services are springing up allowing couples around the world, including the UK to select sperm or eggs from people belonging to a club that rates their members according to their beauty. The goal is to give the child an “advantage in life” by ensuring a pleasing physique. Our society seems to value the notion of the body as an investment that will ensure wealth and happiness. In this perspective, certain looks are considered inferior and insulting within socialite groups. We should be aspiring not just for a healthy child. - It should also be a beautiful child. The technology is indeed available for this type of engineering but is it advisable?

Where do these aspirations come from? The media and advertising industries fuel our imagination of what a “beautiful person” looks like in an endless push to get us to buy goods that will transform us into “beautiful people”. Our dissatisfaction with our looks has huge commercial implications for the cosmetics and plastic surgery industry and now possibly for bio-engineering as well. Favouring a particular “aesthetic” view of the body over another is socially and ethically deplorable because it engenders confusion between our identity as human beings and our looks. Although our looks can contribute to the way we perceive ourselves, looks are not the sole determinant of who we are as human beings. We are much more than our looks. Where should we base our concepts of beauty?

Within a Christian perspective, every human being, irrespective of looks, gender, race or ability has the value of being created in God’s image. This perspective recognises the value of the diversity of human differences without stigma. Our humanity is beautifully diverse in all of its manifestations. Our physical appearance is an expression of this diversity, but so are our creativity, inventiveness, generosity and spirituality. Those are the sources of real “inner “beauty. Anything that just favours the external physique is an incursion into the nightmare of eugenics.

The picture is by Davhor.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Deportation of unaccompanied children must stop

The UK Border Agency sent back over 300 children who sought asylum in the UK since 2004. The children were deported to their first port of entry into the EU as unaccompanied minors. There are also plans to deport children back to their own countries, even if they originally come from distinctly unstable countries like Afghanistan.
According to the Dublin Regulation the UK Border Agency is acting legally when it deports children; but is it acting sensibly? The following questions come to mind.

Is unaccompanied deportation in the benefit of the child?
What psychological effect will such treatment have on the child?
Will the child be safe upon reaching the first point of entry into the EU?

It is understandable that legislation has to be set in place to avoid an endless “pass the parcel” of refugees within the EU. I agree with Melissa Perring, programme manager of the Children’s Society when she says that this legislation should not be applied to children asylum seekers. Whether the legislation is applicable or not does not make the children go away - they are here and we should treat them with compassion, decency and fairness.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Child crime

Politicians are asking at what age children who break the law should be treated as criminals. Certainly some children start early.  However, when should we start giving them criminal records? Up to now the answer in Scotland has been 8 years old. That is out of line with most other countries. Do we honestly believe that a three year old has the ability to distinguish between an action which is self indulgent, exciting or just plain feels good and the intent to commit a crime? While our children may very well understand that a particular action is naughty, unacceptable or just plain bad they will have no understanding of criminal intent.

Yesterday the Scottish Parliament debated the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Bill and whether we should continue to consider a child as young as eight to be capable of committing a criminal act. Ken Macintosh MSP highlighted “there are some children—perhaps as young as eight—who, because they accepted grounds read out to them at a children's panel at a very young age, carry a criminal record well into adulthood; perhaps to the age of 40. I found it particularly odd that children who have enough sense of shame and of right and wrong to accept their wrongdoing—and who one could argue are therefore the most likely to turn their behaviour around—can be labelled with a criminal record, whereas a child who denies any wrongdoing or any misbehaviour can end up with no information against their name".

There is evidence that young children can behave in ways which would be seen as criminal in adults. To consider looking at children below the age of eight in relation to criminality is not just inappropriate; it witnesses to our inability as a society to truly care for our young. Giving a child a criminal record can be very detrimental to their future development and applying the formal justice system may actually contribute to a rise in young offenders, which is precisely what we should be preventing. I agree with Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner Tam Baillie when he says “It’s not appropriate to look at children below the age of eight in relation to criminality.”

We will not change the behaviour of 8 year olds by giving then a criminal record.We will be more effective if we focus on what caused them to act like that in the first place. Early intervention within the family unit combined with court-ordered welfare measures such as care and control orders seem to be the way forward. All of that may cost more money in the short term but the long term, results will save us a lot of cash and pain.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Disappointing… But still time to win the argument

Yesterday I said that during the debate on the Alcohol Etc. (Scotland) Bill, I hoped that MSPs would step back from the debate about details and support the principle that addressing the affordability of alcohol through minimum pricing is a crucial part of the solution to our problems with alcohol.

The debate happened yesterday morning and, while there was general agreement on the need to tackle Scotland's damaging relationship with alcohol, the means to do so were, as expected, the subject of heated debate. This debate focused mostly on minimum pricing- although the lack of detail on the proposed social responsibility levy came under criticism from opponents too. Nicola Sturgeon offered assurances that a price would be named before the Bill process is finished, but this didn't seem to be enough, with the Conservatives lodging an amendment calling on the Government to delete the provision for minimum unit pricing at Stage 2 of the Bill.

Malcolm Chisholm spoke against his Labour colleagues to say that "I believe that minimum unit pricing must be part of the mix of measures and, indeed, is the glue that holds that mix together. Some people have highlighted culture as the problem, but price is a key part of culture. I do not believe that culture can be effectively changed without dealing with the dirt-cheap prices that are a roadblock to culture change." When all other Labour MSPs voted in favour of the Conservative amendment, Malcolm voted against. This is the kind of clear talking and ability to look beyond partisan politicking that we need to see more of.

Bill Kidd MSP quoted from my letter that I sent to all MSPs, while others took time to reply to me prior to the debate. However, it’s always good to get a mention in the Chamber, and in fact the churches were referred to several times throughout the debate. Our role in urging MSPs not to walk away from the need to look wider than the details, however, remains important- perhaps more than ever after yesterday's debate.

The Conservative's amendment which was successful makes the outcome of this debate only a qualified success. While I welcome the fact that enough MSPs were able to support the Bill for it to progress to Stage 2, I am concerned that if minimum pricing is deleted from this Bill, then what is the alternative? This is not about party politics. This is about the need to protect individuals from the serious health consequences that accompany the over-consumption of alcohol in Scottish society. The time for feet dragging and party politicking is over, we need to unite and take bold steps to tackle this scourge on our society. I'll be watching with interest.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

On the pricing of alcohol...Does it need to be so controversial?

Our MSPs are just debating the proposal to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol. This issue has been very controversial although everyone agrees that Scotland has a culture of excessive drinking and that the consequences for our society include poor health, alcohol fuelled crime and reduced employment. Everyone agrees that something must be done.

But what should we do?

This Bill proposes the introduction of a minimum price per unit alcohol. This is a policy which the Church of Scotland has been advocating since 1983. In December 2009 the Kirk launched a campaign asking members of congregations to write to alcohol producers asking them to work with the Government to support minimum pricing. Church members have indicated their support of the campaign and this support has been expressed through different voices, in letters to MSPs, blogs etc. Personally, as a minister and as a convener of the Church and Society Council, I have not remained silent on this issue either.

We seem to be getting bogged down in the debate as to whether people on low incomes will be penalised by the Bill; or whether people will resort to online purchasing in order to access cheaper alcohol. Modelling exercises have been done trying to predict consumer effects and the more we research the more confusing the issue seems to get. Does it need to be so confusing and controversial?

We cannot know, for certain, how consumers would respond to a minimum price; in the end we have to make the best decision we can with the best information available to us. The best information that is available to us is the updated Sheffield Study which draws the clear conclusion that minimum pricing will reduce alcohol consumption. The minimum price needs to be set high enough to generate real change. Minimum pricing is not a panacea and it will not by itself solve our societal problem with alcohol consumption. However, the evidence suggests that an increase in the minimum price of alcohol will reduce consumption of alcohol and reduce the resulting problems for individuals and our society. It is not a case of penalising the majority in order to discourage the minority.

What are we really debating, a health issue or an economics issue? I believe that this not a debate about which policy will be most beneficial for businesses or for Government revenue. This is a debate about whether we, as a society, choose to take action to improve our collective health and wellbeing. We live in a society in which the consequences of excessive drinking are shared by us all. It is up to us to say that an individual, regardless of their income, does not have a right to unlimited access to cheap alcohol when such access is detrimental to the common good.

I hope MSPs stepped back from the debate about details and supported the principle that addressing the affordability of alcohol through minimum pricing is a crucial part of the solution to our problems with alcohol.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Scotland Bill

It seems that the coalition government is in a hurry. Nick Clegg has said that the coalition government was one of reform. So far so good, however, measured steps should be taken upon some of the projected reforms. The Scotland Bill is a case in point. This is an important piece of legislation that would implement some of the final recommendations of the Calman Commission effectively giving the Scottish Parliament increased financial powers. Due consideration and consultation with stakeholders in Scotland needs to be taken before the Bill gets implemented. If the Scottish Parliament is to have increased financial powers, this should be done within a schedule that suits Scotland and the Scottish people and not just following a politically expedient timetable.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Reflections on the Mavi Marmara incident

We will have all seen by now the footage of the boarding of the Mavi Marmara by Israeli soldiers.

Clearly what happened was appalling and the deaths of the nine activists is utterly deplorable.
Some people said that Israel has a right to defend herself and her people, and that the convoy of ships were clearly warned what might happen. Others have called this a massacre, or state terrorism. The use of loaded terminology is brandished effortlessly to sway public opinion one way or the other.

There are many conflicting versions and opinions of the same event. Emotions will inevitably be running high, in Turkey, in Palestine, in Israel, and right around the world.

Violence can never be an answer to conflict. I pray that all sides in this crisis will now realise that continued intransigence and provocation will never result in peace. This disaster needs to be investigated with a clear mind to search for the truth, in order that we can learn how to avoid anything like it ever happening again.
I hope that Christians, Jews, Muslims and all people of faith can come together to reject violence, and in particular condemn anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Scotland. I fear that there may be a backlash against Jewish communities living in the UK following the actions by the Israeli state. It’s at times like these that we need to speak up for the right of all people to live free from fear, and in peace.

The Kirk' possible influence in shaping an agenda for the future

I was heartened when I heard of the appointment of Danny Alexander MP as Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

I met Danny when he attended last year’s Church and Society annual lecture in Aviemore – which was on the causes of the credit crunch. He’s going to have to play a key role in negotiations about budget allocations, public sector pay, welfare reform, and procurement policy over the coming years.
The Aviemore meeting was a seminal conference where the views of the Council concerning ethical investments began to take shape. Almost a year after later, we’ve launched a special Commission on the Purposes of Economic Activity to explore ethical and moral questions related to economics, wealth and happiness.

I hope that the Kirk’s voice will be heard when decisions are being made about tax and spending priorities. The Economics Commission will help inform our position.

We are part of a tradition that has helped shape social and economic changes in Scotland and in the UK. For instance, in 1940, the Kirk launched a Commission led by Edinburgh theology professor John Baillie, whose report was credited with helping to shape crucial social changes after the Second World War, including the welfare state, the NHS and expanded educational opportunities.

Our current work – such as supporting the Poverty Truth Commission and through the development our new Economics Commission – means we can contribute to a sustainable economic future.