Friday, 25 February 2011

The Welfare Reform Bill

Iain Duncan Smith MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has recently introduced the Welfare Reform Bill.

It is being spun as the biggest reform of the welfare state for 60 years since the days of the Beveridge Report.

The Church and Society Council, together with our partners in the Priority Areas Committee, Faith in Community Scotland and other organisations are preparing for some serious engagement with the Bill as it makes its way through the Houses of Parliament.

We have already responded to the Green Paper published last year.

We are cautious about the Bill. Some of the principles are to be welcomed, but it is the detail of how things might work out which is causing some to worry.

Last week Iain Duncan Smith promised that “no one will be worse off” under the new system. We intend to hold him to this promise.

We are also keen to make sure that the Government’s use of language when talking about those who receive benefit entitlements remains fair and not inflammatory. We have had experience of this in the past, and have had an apology out of the Government.

But overall we are keen to work constructively with anyone whose intention is to make life easier for the poorest people. I am keen to continue a dialogue with the Department for Work and Pensions to see how their plans will be rolled out in Scotland.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Westminster Visit

Last week I made an annual visit to the Houses of Parliament to meet some of Scotland’s MPs.

This was the first visit to Westminster since last year’s General Election, and it was a good opportunity to remind MPs that the Church is very much interested in legislation and debates which raise awareness on those issues that we care most about, particularly poverty, justice, peace and climate change.

It is important to get face time with MPs. It reminds them who we are, and it allows for us to share ideas and information in a way that is not possible just be sending e-mails or reading websites. It’s important too for us to demonstrate that we are engaged with Westminster and legislation on reserved issues, and by making the journey south we show that we want to be taken seriously.

We spoke with folk from all four parties represented in Scotland, with our main topics the welfare reform proposals and the impact of spending cuts on the poorest. We also had a chance to just chat; these visits are as much a pastoral opportunity as a political one.

The Speaker of the House of Commons graciously lets us use part of his state apartments in order for us to have a meeting base for an afternoon. This way MPs can come to visit us in between their other duties in the House. This year we were in the Great Bedchamber, where according to tradition is where the monarch sleeps the night before their coronation – no doubt because of its proximity to Westminster Abbey. It is also a reminder that Westminster is a royal palace with an ancient history. The bedroom was rather larger than most houses, and was luxuriously furnished and contained portraits of past Speakers as well as other artefacts relating to the history of the Houses of Parliament. Quite a change from the routine!

Overall it was a good opportunity to share some ideas and concerns, and to help build those relationships which can be so crucial for when we are campaigning or just trying to have our point of view heard by law-makers.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Discrimination against Gypsies/Travellers

I am pleased to be able to support Amnesty International Scotland’s initiative on discrimination against Gypsies/Travellers in Scotland and across Europe today.

Especially after the popular but much-criticised Big Fat Gypsy Wedding that has been shown on Channel 4 recently, it is important to stand in solidarity with people who face discrimination in many parts of the European Union.

Together with a group of other activists, I have signed a series of letters which are being hand-delivered to the First Minister and the consulates of nine EU states in Edinburgh. I am doing this because it is important that the Church is seen to be standing alongside those who are marginalised or face persecution because of prejudices in society. We are calling on the Governments of Scotland and of the other EU countries to show political leadership and do more to protect the human rights of Gypsies/Travellers.

A report on churches’ attitudes to the Travelling community in Scotland is being prepared by Action of Churches Together in Scotland, and will be presented by the Church and Society Council to the Church of Scotland General Assembly in May.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Against the odds…

As the number of problem gamblers in Britain continues to grow we need to start asking ourselves as a culture if we feel we are on the right road; is more gambling a good thing?

Gambling means that a few win and many lose. I worry about gambling and how it is built around undeserved rewards for reckless behaviour, which seems strikingly similar to what happened in the banking system prior to the credit crunch. We need more responsibility in our relationship with money, and this includes how we spend it in leisure time.

The Government has a duty to protect vulnerable people from being exploited or harmed by gambling. An increase in problem gambling suggests that their current methods of protection are a busted flush. With many people’s financial problems increasing the Government must do all it can to curb further proliferation of gambling opportunities. In particular, I'm deeply troubled by the level of problem gambling associated with gaming machines. This form of gambling is solitary and repetitive. These high value machines in betting shops turn every high street into a casino.

More information about gambling in Britain today is available in this excellent paper produced by the Methodist Church and the Salvation Army.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Religious Freedom in Afghanistan

My heart goes out to Said Musa and his friends and family after learning of his death sentence for converting from Islam to Christianity in Afghanistan.

You can read about it at:




I think many people will be worried for the freedom of religion in Afghanistan seeing as the Taliban were forced from power nearly 10 years ago. Conversion from Islam is still a crime in Afghanistan.

Last year the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council produced an important report on Christians who live in minority communities around the world.

I want to see our Government doing all it can to convince the Afghan authorities to free Mr Musa. Western pressure has worked before. Let’s hope and pray that it happens again.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Young and unemployed

Unemployment figures for young people have almost reached the 1 million mark. This means that youth unemployment has risen by 20.3%, which is the highest level it has ever been since 1992. Young people face an incredibly difficult entry into the job market, because they are competing for jobs with experienced workers who have recently entered the job market as a result of redundancy and job cuts.

Whenever young people remain unemployed for long, there is a societal and personal price to pay. A long spell of unemployment leaves permanent scars; it makes the prospect of entering the job market even harder and the likelihood of being stuck in low paying jobs more likely. At a societal level, disaffected youth is more likely to engage in crime and violence increasing demands on the police, social workers, hospitals and courts. Long-term youth unemployment is very expensive. It is also a tragedy.

The Coalition Government has proposed to attack youth unempoyment through a combination of apprenticeships, extra training places at colleges and work pairings, but in England it has allowed for the rise in student fees, the reduction of the education budget and the possible withdrawal of the £550 million education maintenance allowance, which was so vital for young people to remain in education. These actions seem paradoxical because many young people may chose to go back into education if they cannot find employment quickly. However, if entering education will merely sink you further into debt and there are no immediate jobs to be had, what are young people to do?

It is understandable that budgetary cuts need to come but I hope that Scotland can see through the fallacy behind cuts that affect the education, skills development and future employability of our young because innovation, R&D and ultimately jobs come from an educated work-force.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Approving Trident Replacement by the back door?

Greenpeace has uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act that the Ministry of Defence seems to have committed £2 billion in advance purchase of major elements of submarine body and equipment. The shopping list is available by following this link to the Greenpeace website.

It is very worrying to commit to the purchase of submarine parts because there were firm reassurances that no decision would be taken on a Trident replacement programme before 2016. Moreover, if so much money has already been committed in advance purchase orders, how can the cancellation of the Trident replacement programme be justified later on?

One more manifesto pledge seems to be broken. The continuous breaking of trust eventually inspires suspicion. No government can afford to lose the trust of the population, particularly when it involves the judicious use of tax-payers money. There should be much more honesty and transparency on the amount of money being spent in relation the Trident nuclear weapon system. The Church of Scotland remains opposed to nuclear weapons, and calls for the UK Government to have the courage and leadership to repudiate them to help facilitate international nuclear disarmament.