Monday, 26 September 2011

People First

Next Saturday, October 1st, I will be speaking at the People First rally in Glasgow.

The event is co-ordinated by the Scottish Trade Union Congress and is supported by a wide range of civil society organisations including faith groups and equality and anti poverty campaigners.

There will be a march from Glasgow Green at 12 noon and the rally in Kelvingrove Park will be from 1.30 to 3.00pm

After the rally the Close the Gap campaign will be having a lauch event at Anderston Parish Church from 3.30-4.30pm

I hope that this day will be a chance for community organisations and social welfare groups to come together to show solidarity with one another and to raise the profile of the impact that cuts will have on the must vulnerable in society.

As I said, I will have the privilege of being able to speak at the rally. I would welcome your suggestions for things I should say.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Scottish Government – September 2011 Spending Review

Today John Swinney MSP made a statement in Holyrood on the Scottish Government’s Spending Review.

Now I’m not a financial expert and it is far too much detail to take in straight away, so here is my first gut reaction.

What I think is interesting

In his statement Mr Swinney also talked about how bold he wanted to be in terms of preventative spending. In 2011 the General Assembly urged the Government to consider the opportunities created for young people by adopting a preventative spending model when setting education budgets. Support for Family Nurse Partnerships and commitment to a Reducing Reoffending Change Fund are exciting developments.

It is also important to recognise the increase in the Scottish Living Wage to £7.20 per hour. The Church of Scotland supports the Living Wage as one way to help tackle in-work poverty.

The aspiration of the Government to care for the earth, through prioritising a move towards a low carbon economy, is to be welcomed. More investment in renewable energy so we can play our part in global efforts to properly steward resources is also welcome.

The announcement of £3million for new work to tackle sectarianism is also an important way the Government can enhance and complement the work that we are doing in Churches and communities across Scotland.

Issues of fuel poverty have hit the headlines recently and we are pleased to see that the Government has responded to this growing need with several programmes intended to tackle fuel poverty. It is to be hoped that the Government will take action to ensure that these funds are accessible to people in the private rented sector.

What I am sorry not to see in there

There seems to me no substantive discussion of poverty. I sincerely hope that the omission of strategies and initiatives specifically to tackle poverty are not a sign that the Government is abandoning its commitments to work to help those in our society in greatest need.

Poverty is a real problem for a huge proportion of people in Scotland, yet this crucial statement about the future direction of Government funding for the next three years does not address it seriously as a problem.

By having a ‘relentless focus on economic growth’ (their words) is the Government suggesting that they won’t be focusing on anti-poverty work?

This looks as though the Scottish Government is avoiding some of the difficult questions of inequality and the distribution of wealth in Scotland today. It is not enough simply to create wealth through economic growth and be blind to the consequences. We have to be far more sensitive to how wealth is distributed and the destructive impact greater wealth can have on communities and the environment.

For instance, talking about growing Scotland’s transport infrastructure through supporting a new Forth bridge and the Aberdeen bypass does little to tackle the growing carbon emissions from the transport sector.

In 2010 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland called on the Government to recognise the destructive impact of inequality on the wellbeing of all, the disproportionate impact of cuts in services on the poorest, and therefore to poverty proof all budget decisions.

The focus of budgets and spending reviews should not just be a list of financial announcements but demonstrating a deep understanding that the economy is there to serve society, and not the other way around.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Afghanistan; why we need to withdraw troops today

In May the General Assembly voted to oppose the continuation of the war in Afghanistan and called on the Government to take the immediate steps required to secure the earliest possible withdrawal.

I am repeating this call in advance of tomorrow, 21 September, which is the UN International Day for Peace and the World Council of Churches International Day of Prayer for Peace.

World Council of Churches - 21 September is the 
International Day of Prayer for Peace
By working with Church partners from other traditions, including Anglicans, Catholics and Quakers, we assessed the war in Afghanistan against the criteria for a Just War, which many Christians have used for centuries when considering a response to the use of armed force.

We found that the war in Afghanistan cannot be supported.

The Just War tradition requires a series of criteria to be met:

Is the war legitimate, or, is the war permitted by the right authority?

There are two aspects of the war. One is the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), set up under a UN mandate which is designed to support the Afghan National Army and police. The second is Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), which aims to eradicate Al Qaeda and defeat the Taliban. The report concluded that while the ISAF mission could be considered legitimate, the OEF aspect is no longer tenable, as there is no direct threat to our own security and the UN has not given any explicit authorisation for OEF.

Is there a reasonable hope of success?

What does success in the context of the war in Afghanistan look like? Conservative MP John Glen asked in the House of Commons:

"By what measure will we gauge our success? Does it mean free and democratic elections? The removal of corruption? A well-trained and effective army and police force, new roads, new schools, rights for women? Where does the list end and what is realistic? There are many who argue that British and other foreign presence in Afghanistan is a cause for the continuation of violence and insecurity. It also makes Britain a terrorist target. This is why we have called for withdrawal as soon as possible."
Does the harm caused by the war outweigh the harm it prevents?

More than 2000 civilians a year are killed in the conflict. Lives lost which would not be lost if the war wasn’t taking place. It is sometimes argued that the presence of the NATO troops is essential to protect the rights of women. Recent laws passed by the Afghanistan parliament legalise rape within marriage. Sonali Kolhatkar who co-directs the Afghan Women’s Mission (a US based non-profit organisation that supports women’s rights activist in Afghanistan) explains:

"There are incidents happening every day in Afghanistan of women and girls being harassed and raped, flogged and killed by pro-US warlords and local commanders who are not working with the Taliban – such incidents are rarely covered in the Western media. Afghan women activists I work with have long called for US forces to leave Afghanistan."

Are non-combatants protected from violence?

The extended information now available through Wikileaks paints a picture of considerable death and injury caused to civilians and non-combatants and chronicles over 20 separate occasions when British troops are said to have bombed or shot Afghan civilians – identifying at least 26 people killed and another 20 wounded as a result. According to The Observer, (26 September 2010), no British soldier has been prosecuted in relations to operations in Afghanistan. A report in September 2010 by the Afghanistan Study Group, a reputable and specialist US organisation, said that ‘many more civilian deaths have occurred than have been officially acknowledged as a result of US and allied strike accidents’.

The use of drones in particular raises concerns as to whether the methods being used adequately take into account the likelihood of casualties among or the duty to protect them. John Baron MP (Con), a former army officer, in a speech in September 2010, expressed the view that ‘high civilian casualty rates exponentially increase hostility. They might not force Afghans actively to support the Taliban but it will certainly stop them opposing anyone who wants to kill those who have killed their loved ones.’ Non-combatant immunity is fundamental to the just war theory. The huge loss of civilian lives, regardless of whether they were directly or indirectly intended, undermines any justification of the war.

Read the full report.

This video is an introduction to the report from Norman Shanks, one of the authors.

Read the response of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the report.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Paying tax is good for us

Last week a petition was launched to change the term ‘Income Tax’ to ‘Social Investment Payment’.

The petition, which anyone can sign on the epetitions website, says:

We need to change the way we think about income tax. For too long it has been seen as a necessary evil, a portion of our incomes which we part with reluctantly. Rather, paying tax is a good thing. Through it we contribute towards an incredible range of services and facilities which we could never otherwise afford: schools, hospitals, transport systems, sporting facilities, theatres and art galleries, street lighting, parks, community centres – the list goes on. Now is the time to start changing the way we think about our contribution towards the cost of these services and facilities, and use the term 'Social Investment Payment' rather than 'income tax'.

The Herald included a comment about this in today's edition which commended the petition.

I fully agree with this petition – we should pay tax with pride, and see it not as a penalty but as a contribution from those who have been blessed to help those less fortunate than themselves.

If you love your neighbour, if you value your public services, if you want to know that there is a social safety net for those who need it, think again about tax, and sign the petition!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Homelessness - we need your stories and ideas

The Scottish Government has a target that by 31 December 2012, all unintentionally homeless households will be entitled to permanent accommodation. This is a change from the current situation where only households that are deemed to be in ‘priority need’ are entitled to permanent accommodation.

Progress has been made since the target was set nearly 10 years ago. By June around 87% of unintentionally homeless people were being assessed as ‘priority need’. Some parts of the country like Dundee and Orkney have already reached the target, but others still have some way to go.

This is why we are working with Scottish Churches Housing Action to see if we can find what more needs to be done in order that the target is reached. Given the scale of financial pressures, many now think it is unlikely that the target will be reached by the end of next year – but we want to play our part in making sure it is achieved as soon as possible.

We’ll be reporting more on this at next year’s General Assembly. To help us with this report we need your help. We are looking for examples of local church projects which work with homeless people. If your church is involved, for instance by hosting a night shelter, raising funds, offering a drop-in facility or something else then we would be pleased to hear from you – email

On 30 September we are holding a conference in Edinburgh with Scottish Churches Housing Action to look at the policy issues in more detail. We are hoping a range of people will be there, from local and national government, churches, housing associations and homelessness charities. There are still a few places left, if you would like to find out more, download the flyer which has information about the timetable and how to register.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Time or money? Growing up in Britian today

Yesterday’s report from UNICEF reminds us again about the importance of getting our priorities in the right order.

Family life, sharing time and laughter together, living
happily – these things cannot be bought in the shopping centre or through the internet.

So why does Britain seem to do so badly in these international comparisons? What is it that is ‘wrong’ with our society? Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum I imagine there will be a variety of different answers.

One of the most convincing arguments I have seen is those put forward by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’. In a nutshell, their argument is that societies where income difference between the poorest and richest is small have better social outcomes for all social groups on a range of indicators, from academic attainment to happiness and well-being. Britain is a relatively unequal society, and it is relatively unhappy, and has a fair slice of social problems from knife crime to our relationship with alcohol and drugs and so on.

What can be done? From a policy-makers perspective it is surely important to focus on making our society a more equal place to live.

But as individuals, we need to take stock and think about the things that we really need to cherish – love, life, friends and family.

St Irenaeus said that the Glory of God is reflected in a human being fully alive. We are called to a full, abundant life (John 10:10).  Far better to share with others rather than struggling to accumulate wealth or compensate our loved ones with gifts for our failures to be there for them.

We reported on what it means to Grow Up in Scotland in 2009. We asked children, young people and adults what can churches do to help. 

Children's responses included:

(a) Provide clubs and outings
(b) Encourage children to come to Church
(c) More fundraising projects for charity (like people in poverty)
(d) Summer Sunday School

Young people's responses included:

(a) Charity work
(b) Got to combat trend where one goes to Church as kid and then grows out of it.
(c) Fairtrade groups within schools
(d) Charity work – unique position with volunteers and fundraising
(e) Challenge dogged traditionalism which is very intolerant and dismissive of children

Adult responses included:

(a) Help create community
(b) Affirm people's real, honest experience
(c) Make sermons less boring
(d) Provide appropriate activities and improve quality of religious education
(e) Prophetic voice
(f) Enable young and old to listen to each other
(g) Listen, beyond paying lip service
(h) Make safe places for young people to hang out and ask questions

What is your church doing?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Arms Trade

Today in London the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair opened its doors.

I wrote about Britain's role in the arms trade business in today's Scotsman, and I have reproduced my article below.

I also spoke about this issue on this morning's Good Morning Scotland programme on BBC Radio Scotland as the 'thought for the day.  You can hear this on the iPlayer website for the next week (at 1:22:40).

Selling arms to our allies so they can defend themselves is one thing; making fortunes out of the misery of countless millions is another. The government is entrusted with the task of drawing a line between the two. Both the previous Labour government and the coalition have failed to do this.

I cannot accept the idea that an economy which relies on the production of life-denying equipment is healthy. It is perverse that the government should support and promote weapons production and distribution.

The British government has for years tried to manipulate global trade and politics by promoting arms sales to despotic regimes. Our taxes are going to support a war-mongering effort through the Defence and Security Organisation (DSO). This wing of UK Trade and Investment pushes the selling of armaments to many governments with appalling human rights records. It must be remembered that Britain was selling arms to Gaddafi's Libya in February and in March we were launching air strikes against the regime.

We need to ask why we allow the government use our money to support an arms trade system that sacrifices the lives and livelihoods of innocents overseas – and for what? A bigger profit margin, bigger bonuses and bigger shareholder dividend for fat-cat investors and executives.

The DSO must be closed and its operations cease. The subsidy it spends to support arms sales should be used for the common good. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the cost to the taxpayer of arms subsidies is £700 million a year. Other investigations show British arms sales to the Middle East are up 27 per cent on last year.

The arms trade can corrupt moral and financial judgment, and adds immeasurably to the anguish, pain and poverty of us all, especially the powerless. The Church is called to work for peace in the world that is founded on love and justice, not a balance of fear. Britain controls too much of the global arms trade; there must be other ways to influence the world for the better.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Carbon emissions targets and caring for creation

It’s coming round to that time of year again when getting the fire going and cranking up the central heating seems like an ideal plan - particularly on days like today when the warmth of summer feels like a distant memory! According to a news report this week, last years cold snap saw greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland increase by 9% as people endeavoured to keep warm at home in the Arctic winter conditions we were experiencing.

This rise in emissions was in sharp contrast to previous years, where the output of greenhouse gases in Scotland have been recorded as steadily declining, keeping us on track to meeting the Scottish Government’s target of a 42% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Climate change is something which we as a Church are wholeheartedly committed to tackling, and these reports show that we still have considerable work to do. At our General Assembly in 2009 we noted the serious damage the effects of climate change are having not just to our natural environment, but also on the lives of those people trapped in the grip of poverty.

I mentioned in an earlier blog post that we are presently in “Creation Time” – a period set apart to allow us to reflect on the way we care for environment. Now seems a good a time as any then to remind ourselves that, in the words of Psalm 24:
“The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.”

This is God’s Earth. From the highest mountain to the deepest ocean – all things belong God. We are the stewards of this magnificent creation, a role which we all too often neglect. Creation Time presents a good opportunity for you and your Church to reflect on the contribution you are making to halting this increase of damaging greenhouse gas emissions we seeing in Scotland.

The Church of Scotland supports the ecumenical movement Eco-Congregation Scotland. It exists to help congregations link environmental issues to their faith and take action in their church and local community. Environmental protection is an important principle, but it is something that needs to be practically outworked in the way we use our resources and buildings etc. If you find you’re struggling to make the step from principle to practice then can I urge you to get in contact with our sisters and brothers at Eco-Congregations, they’d be delighted to assist you in any way they can as we journey together to conserve this beautiful, God-given world in which we live.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Zambia, and how the love of money harms society

Tax evasion by a mining company in Zambia has come to my attention this week.  Zambia is an African nation blessed with many natural resources and a country where we as a Church gladly serve as part of our World Mission work. Managed well the revenue generated from the extraction and sale of the abundant natural resources could be, potentially, a great source of income for Zambia. However, this has not been the case. These mineral reserves have been a curse for the majority of the population meaning poverty for most, in the midst of plenty - for some.

This issue has come to a head this year in light of elections which will be taking place across Zambia later this month. There is not much ideologically that separates the main parties, politics here tend to have more to do with personalities. However, the use of the county’s natural resources is in issue which engages all parties. The key concern is this: that mining multi-nationals are being accused of a lack of financial and fiscal transparency, violating the human rights of their employees and showing a disregard for the environment.

One multi-national operating in Zambia in particular has hit the headlines this year: Mopani Copper Mines, one of Zambia’s biggest producers of copper and cobalt. It has been reported that Mopani ‘sold’ its Zambian copper and cobalt at a price lower than that set by the London Metal Exchange to its Swiss parent company, Glencore. Glencore hedged and then sold on the copper when the price was higher so as to maximize profits. Between 2003 and 2008 it is reckoned $700m was made in this way. According to World Trade Organisation (WTO) figures in 2008, over half of Zambia’s copper production was ‘exported’ to Switzerland. Cobalt received the same treatment. Moreover, you may also be interested to hear that Mopani received 48m Euros in early 2005 from the European Investment Bank (EIB) to help contribute to sustainable development in Zambia. This funding has since been stopped.

There is a Memorandum of Understanding with the Zambian Government which gives Mopani a number of tax reduction and exemptions. Yet still Mopani claims to make no profit further reducing its fiscal obligations. A recent audit reported Mopani resorted to the following ploys to evade taxation in Zambia:

  • Overestimating the costs of mining and extraction
  • Underestimating the volume of production
  • Price-fixing and avoiding competition.

Aside from violating good practice in line with OECD guidelines the more important issue is that the greed of this multi-national company has prevented huge sums of money from being re-invested into Zambia, thus keeping Zambia poor.

Jesus tells a story about the fruits of such shameless greed: the parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12: 13-21). A man stores all his earthly treasures up in barns, and when these barns are full he tears them down to build bigger ones. He flatters himself and is overjoyed at all he has made, at just how rich he has become: “it’s all mine!” He plans early retirement and on spending the rest of his life taking it easy. The message for this man from God is clear-cut: “You fool.” This is how it is with those who pile up riches for themselves but are not rich in God’s sight – the treasure they store up here for themselves will not last. There is no space for greed in God’s kingdom.

Being rich in God’s sight is far more important than any profit margin, revenue level or tax-evasion scheme we could ever dream of devising. For Christians this richness means loving God and living for Him. The Bible, God’s word for us to live by, demands that we do all we can to alleviate poverty. So I ask that you join with me in praying for the people of Zambia as they go to the polling stations on the 20th September. That the government they choose to elect would take a bold stance against the greed of multi-national co-operations whose conduct would have Zambians remain in the grip of poverty.

You can also take a stand against tax evasion by following this link to a Christian Aid petition:

Further links on this issue:

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Justice and Rights for Gypsies/Travellers

This year at the General Assembly commissioners heard a report on the Church’s attitude to the Travelling Community in Scotland.

Today I was encouraged to receive a letter from the Scottish Government which affirmed the contents of this report and our desire as a Church to see the rights of the Travelling Community respected. The Scottish Government has made it clear that discrimination against the Travelling Community is to be taken seriously. In fact, it goes so far as to recognise the Travelling Community as a distinct ethnic group and has set out a number of proposals which it hopes will allow this community to flourish.

This is encouraging news as it is good progress to achieving some of the recommendations set out by the Church’s report. Moreover, the recognition of the Travelling Community as a distinct ethnic group (giving rise to legal rights) is important as it is in line with our call as Christians to defend the rights of the oppressed and to be a voice for those in minority groups (Psalm 82:3,4 and Isaiah 1:17).

It is with great sadness then that I have noted the news that during the month ahead 400 Travellers currently residing at Dale Farm, Essex are to be evicted from their homes. Aside from the obvious trauma of being forcibly removed from their homes, this community of Travellers will also see the consequences of this eviction affect their access to healthcare, employment, safe residence and even education as children too will be uprooted. On a relational level, friends and families face being split apart as the Travellers are forced to move on and relocate.

Earlier I mentioned the call of the Christian to uphold the rights of minorities. The Church of all places should be a forum where the voice of Travellers can be heard safely and which supports the rights of this oppressed and too often misunderstood group. Not least because in our own history as a body of God’s people we have ourselves been a wandering community, just take a look through the books of Exodus and Ruth. The imminent eviction of residents at Dale Farm threatens the basic rights of this community of Travellers. I will be praying for this community in the days ahead as they begin to come to terms with the upheaval they face. I would also join with the UN’s Committee on Elimination and Discrimination in calling for this eviction to be stopped, or at the very least postponed until suitable alternative accommodation, which reflects the culture of the Travelling Community, can be found.

For further information see this press release on the report regarding the Church’s attitude to the travelling community.