Tim Jones, Michael Kirwan SJ, Niall Cooper and Alison Gelder
“A tsunami of suffering will swamp hundreds of thousands of families in the UK, the like of which we have not seen in recent times”, warned the Director of Church Action on Poverty (CAP) on Saturday. Speaking at a quarterly meeting of the National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN), held at CAFOD’s London headquarters, he was referring to the impact of government austerity measures.
“The need for the option for the poor in UK has never been greater” said Niall Cooper, whose stories included a woman in Hertfordshire with four children who has just been informed that her benefits will be capped and is “scared stiff” that she will only have around £10 a week left for food after other expenses. “She is not alone” he said, pointing to the mushrooming of food banks as proof of widespread hardship, suggesting that although a humanitarian crisis needs a humanitarian response the churches need to be active in addressing the underlying causes. He knew Justice and Peace activists would be familiar with Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community in the US who said that, “the churches are fantastic at pulling drowning people out of the river, but a part of the churches’ task is to go upstream and see what is driving them into the river”.
Niall highlighted CAPs’ ‘Close the Gap’ campaign, pushing for change through fair taxes, fair pay and fair prices. He also flagged up the recent ‘Tax Justice Bus’ initiative, where a red bus toured the country giving the message that tax dodging hurts the poor. “We spent 53 days hosting thousands on the bus and speaking to more than 50 MPs” he said, pointing out that 98 of the top 100 FTSE companies have subsidiary companies in tax havens. “This is costing our country at least £35 billion per year” he added, “and we wouldn’t need austerity programmes if companies paid their taxes”. The Church Investors Group, which has significant investments in the corporate world, is being lobbied to use its power for promote justice. He was delighted that the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales and the Church of England have now signed up to the Living Wage, which CAP has pushed for several years. “In the face of the tsunami we must play our part in building a movement for the transformation of society” he concluded.
Niall was one of four speakers addressing around 50 diocesan J&P workers, religious orders and Catholic organisations from around England and Wales on the theme of ‘Option for the poor – what options now?’
Alison Gelder, the Director of Housing Justice, focused on homelessness and welfare reform. Cuts to housing benefits started soon after the Coalition government came to power. She suggested that “the poor are bearing the brunt of the government strategy to reduce the deficit”. Alison called for NJPN to challenge the orthodoxy of fairness. She felt next April’s ‘Bedroom Tax’ will “attack people in social rented accommodation” and force thousands into homelessness. Housing Associations are very worried because they don’t want to evict people but theirs and council tenants will see benefits cut if they are deemed to have spare bedrooms. Alison pointed NJPN towards Poverty and Homelessness Action Week 26 January – 3 February 2013, which aims to raise awareness of the forces at play behind hardship. The week highlights that, “stigmatising the vulnerable is antithetical to the Christian ethic”.
The other two speakers were Tim Jones of Jubilee Debt Campaign and Fr Michael Kirwan SJ of Heythrop College. The first spoke about the on-going campaign to tackle global debt and a quick survey showed that two-thirds of the people in the room had been involved for more than two decades, having attended the ‘Hands around Birmingham’ lobby of the G8 in 1998 and the ‘Make Poverty History’ lobby of the G8 in Edinburgh in 2005. “The need for a Jubilee on debt is still there” Tim stressed. Michael underlined Catholic Social Teaching as providing “the matrix of criteria” for acting on the ‘Option for the poor’.
NJPN members undertook to look into tackling the huge number of empty homes in Britain – around 750,000. Perhaps empty presbyteries or underused ones could be part of ethical letting schemes. The government could be encouraged to save money by cutting arms budgets, particularly abandoning plans to spend at least £70 billion on renewing Britain’s Trident missile system. The media should be challenged over labelling people as ‘scroungers’ and NJPN members will use social media more to change negative perceptions regarding people receiving state benefits. NJPN Chair Anne Peacey and administrator Ann Kelly said the ideas would be typed up and circulated to the hundreds of people who now receive and appreciate the NJPN weekly e-mailing.
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