Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Is the UK Government’s solar panel review FiT for purpose?

The UK Government has shocked the renewable energy world by proposing to cut the subsidy for solar panels by 50%. The subsidy is provided in the form of a ‘Feed in Tariff’ or ‘FiT’ that is designed to encourage the installation of low carbon electricity generation on houses or others buildings, including churches. The scale of the cuts and their speed – they are due to come into effect on 12 December – has caused real consternation.

One of the reasons for the announcement is the success of the scheme, which has attracted far more interest than the government had expected. Churches have begun to take interest and this unhappy announcement coincided with the report of the Eco-Congregation Scotland solar panel conference at Partick South Church in Glasgow on 29 October. This conference brought together 120 representatives from churches around Scotland to discuss the pros and cons and of solar panels.

Speakers and participants agreed that solar panels might be useful in Scotland, despite our rather grey climate but firmly concluded that they only make sense as part of a ‘whole church’ energy management policy. The conference report encourages congregations to do the basics before considering solar panels: install draught proofing or secondary glazing. This would help improve the energy rating of the church, something the UK Government is also seeking to encourage in its consultation. Few churches have energy performance certificates and their introduction has been resisted some church authorities. However the UK Government is suggesting this could become a pre condition for the subsidy.

Others have criticised the UK government proposals. Housing associations have suggested that they are regressive and that they will destroy plans by social housing providers to install solar panels on housing in low income areas. Friends of the Earth in England are arguing the whole review is illegal because the haste with which it is being introduced and are mounting a legal challenge in the courts.

This is a lot to consider and we will be looking at the details closely. But it does say something about the inadequacy of the consultation. The UK Government has come up with some reasonable arguments about the subsidy but has managed to upset just about everybody in the process. At a time when government, churches and communities should be working together to respond to climate change the consultation risks driving us apart.

You can find out more about the ECS Solar Panel Conference and Review of FiT at:

Friday, 18 November 2011

Growing Pains?

There has been considerable coverage of the announcement that the world’s population has crossed the 7 billion threshold for the first time.

On the back of this people have expressed their fears about what this means in terms of managing resources. One eminent scientist went so far as to suggest that families in Scotland should be limited to two children.

I don’t think that the question shouldn’t really about limiting the number of children; it should be about how much we humans consume, in terms of food, energy, water and other resources.

There is enough to go around, we just need to find a better way of sharing it with one another.

Reports from UN and elsewhere suggest this is possible but we will have to change the way we manage and share the earth’s resources to ensure there is enough for everybody.

We hide ethical issues of sharing behind the false god of economic growth. What we in affluent countries cannot do is continue to consume resources at the current wasteful rate.

For these reasons excessive consumption rather than excessive population is the real issue.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Occupy Edinburgh

It was interesting to meet a couple of young men from the Occupy Edinburgh camp yesterday.

Pete Nicholson and Eric Nelson came along to the Church of Scotland offices in Edinburgh to give evidence to the Church of Scotland Commission on the Purposes of Economic Activity.

Although they’re located at opposite ends of Edinburgh’s George St, and their approaches quite different, it was gratifying to see just how much common ground there was between the two groups.

When we set up the Commission to look at the ethics underpinning the way we do economics, as part of the church’s response to the “credit crunch” of 2008/9, we took a lot of flack from people saying that, by the time it reported to the General Assembly in 2012, the whole thing would have blown over and we would be back to “business as usual”.

In many ways, that was the whole point: that we can’t just go back to business as usual, and the need to take a proper look at what we’re doing with economics has become more rather than less relevant.

Of course, Jesus reminds us that you can’t serve both God and money, and Paul identified the love of money as being at the root of all kinds of evil; these are themes which are echoed in what the Occupy Edinburgh protestors are saying.

We have to recognise again that economics and wealth are far too important for the church to ignore – and that they are about much more than simply money.

You can read about the Occupy Edinburgh visit to the Economics Commission at the Scotsman or watch a short news clip about it on STV News

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Prisoners' Week: 20-27 November

Welcome home?

What’s it like for a prisoner getting ready to go home after a spell inside? Will they be welcomed? By their family - probably; by their community – maybe; by employers – less likely. How can we prepare for their return?

It’s in everyone’s interest to help them settle into community life – and help them to avoid re-offending – but support is needed. But this support can and is being given! Read about Frank and Brian’s stories.

Prisoners’ Week helps us to focus on how we can welcome ex-offenders home. It’s an opportunity to remember all in our communities who are affected by crime and imprisonment – prisoners and their families, the victims of crime and those who work within the Criminal Justice System.

It is an initiative of the Churches that encourages debate and interest about justice in our communities, highlights concerns and shares hope.

And you’re invited to come along and join in the debate. Prisoners' Week Question Time is on Monday 21 November, 7pm - 9pm, in St Matthew's Episcopal Church, 200 Balmore Road, Glasgow G22 6LJ.

If you can’t go to this event you can still watch live online.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Palestinian Christians

wrote yesterday about my visit last week to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

When I was there I had dinner in an East Jerusalem restaurant with four young Palestinian Christian professional people who had agreed to tell me what life is like for them under occupation.

East Jerusalem is formerly part of Jordan, now subsumed within the Jerusalem municipal boundary. Palestinian residents have separate ID status there from the West Bank. They can travel in Israel, and in the West Bank, however they have only a resident’s ID and travel document, and are made to feel like illegal immigrants in their own country.
While Christians around the world romanticise about celebrating Easter in Jerusalem, these locals no longer go.

The prospect of having to negotiate four checkpoints manned by armed soldiers to get into the Old City is more than enough disincentive.

“This life is killing the Spirit”, says one.

“It is already dead”, says another.

These are people with Masters Degrees from Universities including Glasgow.

The question “Do I stay or do I leave?” is a daily reality – many of their friends have already gone.

They are aware that this is a privileged position, and that most young Palestinians don’t have a choice.

The first question a young man and woman ask one another is not very romantic: What is your ID status? Why fall in love with someone who is destined to be separated from you by a twenty foot concrete wall?

For information on conditions on the West Bank and East Jerusalem area go to the website of UN OCHA (the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Alcohol Bill and Minimum Pricing

As we approach Christmas, adverts on TV are urging shoppers to stock up on alcohol in preparation for the festive season. Whilst some of us may enjoy a glass of something special at Christmas, or a dram to bring in the New Year, what about our drinking habits throughout the year? What of the drinking habits of our nation?

Last week, the Scottish Government introduced the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill to the Scottish Parliament. The Bill will introduce a minimum price of alcohol below which alcohol must not be sold on licensed premises. The Scottish Government hasn't revealed the minimum price that they are planning to introduce, but it will be set according to the strength of the alcohol, the volume of the alcohol and the minimum price per unit.

This isn't something that the Church has just supported in the heat of political debate; the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland discussed and supported the principle of minimum pricing in 1983, 1986 and 1987 and reaffirmed this position in 2009.

If an increase in the minimum price of alcohol will reduce consumption of alcohol and reduce the resulting problems for individuals and our society then it is not a case of penalising the majority in order to discourage the minority. This is a choice that we, as a society, could make in order to improve our collective health and wellbeing. That is why I will support the principle of the Scottish Government introducing a minimum price per unit of alcohol.

Visiting Israel and Palestine

I spent last week in and around East Jerusalem and the Bethlehem area of the West Bank speaking to people about the current situation in the Palestinian Territories. I had hoped to go to Gaza but the permit did not materialise.

I have always been struck by the resilience of Palestinians I have met when they have spoken about life under occupation, however on this occasion I was aware just how tired many people have become following twenty years of negotiation that have resulted in things getting worse rather than better.

Hopes for a two state solution are strained, and the response to the Palestinian UNESCO application being approved, both by the US and Canada withdrawing aid and the Israeli withholding of Palestinian tax revenue, has caused huge frustration and distress.

As Israel continues to expand the building of settlements in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank, it is planning the forced relocation of twenty Bedouin and Herder communities into an urban setting, meaning the loss of their way of life as well as further displacement of what are already largely refugee communities.

Meanwhile the descriptions of life in Gaza are appalling, with the water supply polluted to the point of being poisonous.

As Christmas decorations start to go up across Scotland’s High Streets, life in Bethlehem is far from the glitter. Weariness and resignation are more in evidence than expectation.

For a good briefing on life in Gaza see the website of UN Office of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Is gambling too prevalent in society?

In Britain the law around gambling is from Labour UK Government’s Gambling Act 2005. This Act was supposed to both liberalise gambling (including allowing advertising for the first time, and the establishment of new Las Vegas-style Mega Casinos) whilst at the same time introducing new protections for vulnerable players.

Has it worked? Well there is more gambling than before, but sadly there is also more problem gambling. So the industry has been liberalised but at the cost of addiction. We’ve not seen any new Mega Casinos opened, but despite this the explosion in online gambling has added its own misery.

It was revealing to read Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s remarks to the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee that he thinks the laws are ‘inconsistent’ and in ‘limbo’ which is ‘not healthy’.

Here are some of my suggestions for how to improve the situation:
  • Government should address problem gambling as a public health issue, not as part of business regulation.
  • There should be stronger restrictions on gambling advertising
  • The levels of stakes and prizes for gaming machines should be reduced
  • Children should be prevented from playing on low value fruit machines
  • Local authorities should have the power to limit the number of gambling premises in a particular area if there is local concern that there are too many
  • Government should regularly monitor the prevalence of gambling and problem gambling and if it appears that problems are increasing they must do more to stop it.

 The Church of Scotland works closely with a range of other Christian organisations on gambling policy. I will be asking them to write to Jeremy Hunt about how we can contribute for the benefit of everybody. Together we have produced a briefing on gambling issues, Against the odds…?

Robin Hood Tax

The Church of Scotland is a member of the Robin Hood Tax campaign.

This campaign calls for a tiny charge of 0.05% on financial transactions such as stocks, bonds, foreign currency and derivatives. It is estimated that if it was introduced by countries across the world it could raise an extra £250billion per year, which could help bolster public services, increase aid to developing countries or help to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Last Monday I, along with representatives of about 70 other organisations, wrote to the Prime Minister ahead of the G20 meeting urging him to consider signing up.

So far the UK Government position has been to oppose the idea of a financial transaction tax, but the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are both in favour of it. We hope that the G20 meeting will be a crucial turning point and that if the UK Government gets behind it, it will sooner become a reality.