Category: Politics


Reintegrating Prisoners

AMDG

1376142163There has been a very interesting development with our Foodbank the last couple of weeks.  We are suddenly receiving a lot of referrals from the Probation Service.  As they attempt to reintegrate former prisoners back in to civilian life, it is famously hard for those used to an institutional life to cope on their own again.  We know that the recidivism rate is a source of concern (the rate of ex-prisoners re-offending on release), and that there are many strategies attempting to reduce this.  So it is great if the Foodbank can assist in anyway.  Our ‘front of house’ students are trained to be non-judgmental of anyone who is referred to the Foodbank.  It is the job of our referral agencies to decide who is in genuine need, not our job.  We just assist in giving out the food and offering advice about where else to go.  Usually people are incredibly grateful for the help they get, and the students do a great job at welcoming them, making them feel relaxed, helping to ‘signpost’ them on to other support.  

National Probation Service (1)However last week there was interesting development.  One guy, referred by the probation service,  came in and was very angry at being given a bag of Tesco-value tea-bags.  ‘I’m not an animal’ he said angrily to the students.  Another guy came in and rejected half of the food that was given to him.  The emergency food provision – is carefully measured out, nutritionally balanced, under guidelines given by the Trussell Trust.  So having half of it thrown back in their faces, because the guy didn’t like tomato sauce or couldn’t be bothered to carry cans was a bit galling.  However they all kept their cool, and today we all got together and had a brief reflection on the experience.  It was  interesting to consider the issue facing ex-prisoners as they attempt to reintegrate, maybe they are a bit institutionalized after years locked up, used to the same menu.  Another possibility is perhaps a ‘chip on their shoulder’ about being locked up – and how they feel civvies view them.  Also with the first chance to exercise choice in a long time it maybe that their reactions are a bit exaggerated. 

It also more evidence that as the state rolls back it support, and there is no strong family unit in place to takes is place – more and more pressure is being put on voluntary groups, often faith-based ones to fill in the gap.

Historic Day in Manchester

AMDG

David Cameron visits NuneatonTwo important things happened yesterday in Manchester which offer a contrast that maybe worth reflecting on.  The Prime Minister gave his speech about his vision of ‘ a land of opportunity for all’, whilst just down the road (to be precise Oxford Rd)  we are opening the first student-run foodbank in the country (link to BBC website).   All around Manchester you can see the Conservative Party banners – with their conference slogan proclaiming ‘For Hard Working People‘.  The implication is that we are not the party of scroungers, lazy welfare dependent – ‘feckless’ poor.  The embarrassing truth is that according to foodbank usage statistics (collated by the excellent Trussell Trust), the crisis food provision is increasingly being used by the ‘working poor‘.   The sad fact is that many hard working people seem to be getting poorer, especially those not protected by proper contracts.

The Conservative Party seem to have a schizophrenic relationship with Foodbanks, on one hand they are held up as being a great example of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ on the other hand there is considerable embarrassment about the incredible growth of the foodbank network.  This is embarrassing for the government as it makes visible what was hidden before, food poverty.   Food Poverty is something that teachers have noticed as alarming levels of students arrive at school with empty stomachs, here in Central Manchester we have the highest indices of child poverty in the country.  It was sad to see a meeting between MP’s and foodbank managers was cancelled this week here in Manchester for lack of interest by the Conservative MP’s.  We also had the same problem attracting Catholic Mp’s to speak to the students – none were interested in coming. Last year at the Labour conference a few Mp’s came – including the impressive Jim Murphy, who still came and talked to the students even though he had lost his voice.

Even if the government wasn’t interested – the media were – this report went out nationwide on ITV yesterday

Foodbanks – Hope & Scandal

AMDG

This is a scheduled blog – posted automatically – I’m on a silent retreat at the moment so will only be able to moderate or reply to comments at the end of next week 

 1376142163Here in Manchester – we are about to open the first student-run foodbank in the country.  We have been working with the Trussel Trust (TTT), a Christian charity who currently support the biggest network of foodbanks in the country.  The alarming rate of growth of foodbanks is a direct response to two conflicting trends in British life.  The growth of ‘food poverty’ : as globally food prices rise, energy prices rise, but locally wages stay still or decrease, those with a basic income are finding it harder and harder to put food on the table.  The second trend is the cutting of benefits, and the dismantling of a bloated welfare state.  With pressure on local agencies to withhold benefits for the slightest misdemeanour, those accustomed to relying on this are finding themselves in emergency situations, where they may have to wait a few weeks before any income resumes.   So foodbanks are popping up all over the place, often but not exclusively in churches – to provide short-term emergency assistance. 
Picture1The TT model that we are following,  provides a referral service, where those in crisis can be referred to us for food parcels by a variety of front-line agencies.  People don’t just walk-in off the streets, it is not a drop-in centre they must be referred with vouchers.  These are also limited to three per six months, so it is not creating dependency but rather providing an emergency – short term crisis service.  The vouchers also ensure that a sophisticated monitoring process can go on to find out the causes of these crises, and spot any patterns emerging.  It was interesting to see that TTT was able to identify a spike in demand during the summer holidays as free-school-dinners were not available to struggling families.  Present at yesterdays training day – here at the chaplaincy – were representatives from the council, the huge local hospital, schools, churches, sure-start centres,  job-centers, charities etc.  It was a an impressive kaleidoscope of civil society,  the ill-fated ‘Big-Society’.

download (2)The scandal of food-poverty in such a wealthy society – for me points more towards the breakdown of the extended family rather than free-market politics.  Like many post-industrial societies we are in a much-needed reform of the welfare state, but when the family is not there to pick up the pieces – more strain is put on civil-society as big-government withdraws.  However dirty politics also reared its head yesterday.  It turns out that the job-centres, who are enthusiastic referrers to food banks, at times verging on the irresponsible, using us an excuse to meet quotas, cut corners.  The job centres refuse to use the voucher scheme as sanctioned by TTT.  Why – because much of this food poverty is hidden – but the monitoring system TTT uses allows for the identification of the cause of the crisis and this is an embarrassment for the Dept of Work and Pensions (DWP).  On the voucher it is indicated why someone is in crisis, e.g sickness, benefit delays, domestic violence, debt etc.   It seems that although there was an agreement with TTT and DWP back in 2011, DWP have acted unilaterally and changed it – refusing to use TTT’s vouchers.  It may be that the TTT network is so extensive and successful now, but also they are so good at data gathering that this is embarrassing the government.  They are happy to dump people on the TTT, but not happy for statistics to get out about how the changes are effecting people – now that is Scandalous!

Unity & Division in Spain

AMDG

split_2652412b (1)I woke up this morning in the Galician town of Bezantos in Northern Spain – where my cousin is getting married.  Almost all of the Spanish newspapers have the ‘Gibraltar’ crisis on the front page.  Gibraltar, a rocky peninsula of the South Coast of Spain is British Overseas Territory.  There is an escalating tension between the governments of Britain and Spain triggered by the laying of an artificial reef in the sea off Gibraltar to enhance fishing.  The Spanish channels and papers carry pictures today of a Spanish police diving crew who went into the sea yesterday to measure the size of the blocks, and somehow were pictured unfurling a Spanish Flag underwater.  Talking to the hotel owner today and to some of the locals – they are not interested in the slightest.  A thing for the ‘politicos’ they say not the common people.  They are much more interested in the unveiling this weekend of a British footballer who has just been purchased for a world record price of £85 million by Real Madrid

Santa Maria de Azogue, Bezantos

Santa Maria de Azogue, Bezantos

Contrast with the wedding today of my cousin from London with Natalia whose family is Galician.  Her parents emigrated to London for work and have since retired and moved back to their beloved Galicia. Nat works as a doctor in the UK.  It has been a real privilege preparing this couple who are deeply in love.   This is also a testament to how immigration has a wonderful and powerful effect of integrating cultures.  Love of neighbour is much more powerful and important than love of patria or country.  Today will be a memorable day for our family – and a nice counterbalance to the nonsense that some of our politicians are up to.

Outward Looking

AMDG

 

English: Ivan Lewis MP February 2009 taken by ...

 Ivan Lewis MP 

 

We had a great evening at the chaplaincy on Friday Night – as the Faith and Politics series of evenings came to a climax.  With 4 guests, 2 current MP’s, a former MP and a prominent Catholic Journalist.  What was very striking was how positive the energy was, and it is important to remember how much we can achieve when we are looking outwards rather than inwards.  It is an unhealthy community that splits into factions and rows and gossips about ‘internal matters’ whether dogma or politics. A dynamic attractive community is one that puts its faith into action, helping and engaging with civil society.  First up on Friday was Ivan Lewis MP, who talked about his Jewish identity and upbringing, and his passionate defence of faith schools. Currently the Shadow Secretary for International Development, we had moved his talk forward as he left us to go straight to the airport to fly to Burma and meet Aung San Suu Kyi.

 

Talking about Faith and Politics from a liberal Jewish perspective it was interesting to hear him talk about the need for integration not assimilation – with an implicit critique to ‘assertive secularism’.  He argued that a good faith school gives you a strong identity which allows integration.  Compare this to Dawkin’s absurd claim that faith schools are a form of child abuse.  It resonated with me when Mr Lewis said that the lack of a sense of identity was a big problem with young people.  Interestingly this is something I have been pondering recently – especially a phenomenon I see more and more as the Digital Age allows people  to experiment with multiple identities.  Although there is a sort-of freedom in this, ultimately the lack of a deep-rooted identity, especially the experimenting with conflicting identities which on line anonymity allows, often leads to bullying and abuse – and also a vulnerability to being buffeted by the shrill winds of consumerism and ‘lifestyle agendas’.

 

The other MP – Paul Goggins, in contrast shared about how his identity had been shaped at Manchester University - particularly through experiences are working with disabled children through L’arche.  This ethos of service was rooted in his faith – and I am delighted he mentioned this as we were invited at yesterdays evenings mass to get involved with the Manchester L’arche community that is opening.  My next post will be about the other two guests on a memorable night!

 

AMDG

Jim Murphy at Manchester Universities Catholic Chaplaincy

In Britain it is the Political Parties conference season.  The Labour party is just finishing its conference here in Manchester.  I was very struck with the Scottish MP Jim Murphy who took an hour out of his busy schedule yesterday to talk to the students here at the Catholic Chaplaincy. Currently the shadow defence minister, and heavily involved in the Labour Party policy review, it was great to have him opening our ‘Faith and Politics’ season.  The stock of politicians at the moment in the UK is quite low, especially after the expenses scandal a few years ago, when widespread corruption and greed was exposed. Having sat in on a Fringe event earlier on in the week, it is very clear that net-working and self-promotion seems to be rife at these conferences.  Sometimes the self promotion seems stronger that the desire to serve for the common good, and this is probably why the public attitude to politicians has become, sadly, so jaded.

When Jim Murphy arrived it was clear he had lost his voice.  It was a real strain to hear him speak.  He had had two breakfasts that morning.  He refused any money for the taxi fare – and spoke gently but with passion about how faith and politics can be complementary.  I was quite struck by him – he didn’t need to come and talk to 35 students in the Catholic Chaplaincy, I’m sure it has done nothing for his political profile, there were probably more prestigious and more high-profile events he could have attended.  But he was faithful to his booking, even though his voice was giving out.  We were able to give him some throat lozenges as a thankyou gift, ‘I’ll have to declare these’ he said grinning.  I was fortunate to be able to tell him afterwards, that he had done a great thing,  as these students – some aspiring politicians , many Catholic, others not, had been really encouraged by him coming, and speaking openly about the tensions of faith and religion.  He is a role model for them.  He looked genuinely taken aback when I said that.  If only we had more politicians like him.

 

Faith in & of the Police

AMDG

Driving into Manchester 10 days ago to drop off my stuff turned out to be a very eventful journey.  My brother and I were riveted to the radio listening to the findings Independent Hillsborough report (click here).  Many friends were involved in the crush at that Liverpool match in 1989, but thankfully no close friends were among the 96 who died, although we knew some of the victims.  As has been known on Merseyside for a long while, but now thankfully by the rest of the world, the subsequent smearing of the fans could well be the biggest cover up in British history lead by South Yorkshire Police.  However as is often the case, out of tragedy and suffering some good has come, including a solidarity with other fans, the beautiful gestures by United at Anfield on Sunday and dignified leadership by Alex Ferguson. So with mixed and strong emotions, my twin brother (an Evertonian) and I arrived in Manchester.  The radio coverage was riveting but one thing that distracted our attention was driving past a huge video screen that was offering a £50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of a man called Dale Cregan.

Three days later this man, whose face seemed to be all over Manchester, shot dead two unarmed policewomen and then walked into a police station to give himself up.  Acts of wanton destruction and evil like this are always disorienting and confusing.  After a week of anger towards the police for the Hillsborough cover-up, these killings put policing back into perspective.  It is unprecedented for two police women to be killed, and the worst police deaths since the 60′s. But again amidst all the shock, healing started to happen from an unusual source. The Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police in an interview talked about how his faith was helping him.  This is what Sir Peter Fahy, a Catholic, said

“I think a lot of us feel passionately that policing is a vocation. It is a calling. I feel that in terms of my own faith but I know a lot of officers that don’t have a faith, but feel exactly the same – that it is a vocation, that it’s not just a job and I think that’s almost what you go back to in difficult times and difficult circumstances that how unfair something may feel, how inadequate you may feel you do actually rely on that you’re doing your best, and that this is your vocation. The chance for me personally to be able to, every day, to have bit of quiet time, pray, think about your own values, your own sense of vocation, and to examine your own conscience I think is really, really important…… For me personally and a lot of people of faith, prayer is important… you do often feel so helpless, so praying for the dead officers, praying for their families, becomes your own reaction, your own expression of hope really for them, at a time of great need.”

Very powerful words – particularly at a time when there strong pressures to silence the religious voice in the public sphere, or to portray faith as being the realm of bigots and fundamentalists.   It also made me think – would the interview have been picked up elsewhere in the country or is this a fruit of the BBC relocation to Salford?   There is much to reflect on what he said about the healing power of prayer, but maybe more importantly what he also said about examining your conscience.  If only more of the South Yorkshire Police had engaged in that activity more regularly.

AMDG

Now that a fairly hectic Welcome Week ( which I believe is the preferred term to Freshers Week!)  is drawing to a close, I feel that I am beginning to get my feet under the desk here in Manchester.  I have been hugely impressed by the students involved in the chaplaincy – their commitment, their talents, the passion they show when they talk about the community here. I keep on pinching myself about the great potential there is here.  One story that has amused me already was about a talk that my predecessor, Fr Ian Kelly, had organised. American Cardinal Raymond Burke came  to talk about the New Evangelisation.  400 attended, so the chaplaincy had to book the Whitworth Hall at the university to accommodate a big crowd. The caretaker whilst setting out extra chairs for the arriving guests, surprised at the numbers,  said to one of the students ‘Is this guy the Pope?’. It turned out that Alex Ferguson (United Manager), had been awarded an honorary doctorate the week before and they didn’t need the extra chairs. Well its a good sign that Cardinal Burke can draw a bigger crowd than Fergie!

Already the ‘Faith and Politics’ group has an impressive line up of speakers organised, with Shadow Defence Minister Jim Murphy coming in two weeks (Oct 3)  to talk about his Catholic faith.  A week later we will have Andy Burnham and Jeremy Lefroy coming.  Burnham has been a real key player in the Hillsborough campaign, so even though he is an Evertonian he will be made very welcome!  A friend was at wedding with his family recently and said how impressive it was to see them leave early the next morning to drive back across the country so they could get to mass as their local parish.  Later in November we are hoping to have Paul Goggins, Ivan Lewis, Lord Alton, John Battle and Christopher Lamb, all on the same night!  And then Faith and Politics will finish November with none other than the controversial George Galloway on the role of Faith in politics.   And that’s just Semester One!  So well done to Matthew and Eamon for organising that –  now we are trying to get speakers organised for the faith and Science group – any ideas or contacts let me know!

AMDG

In the UK there is undoubtedly a wonderful feel-good factor at the end of a horrendously wet summer.  There is a big discussion about what the legacy of the summer should be.  For me the big difference has been how positive the media has been.  Many people have commented on how the newspapers, TV, radio and now the internet should be reflecting news not creating news. The reality is there is a complex relationship between reporting the news and commenting on the news, on reflecting opinion and forming opinion.  With the Jubilee and the Olympics the media ‘got on board’ and have had a huge role in the feel good factor.  For once optimism and hope has replaced cynicism and for me this is the legacy of the Games.  I often have though wouldn’t it be great if we could launch a mainstream, national, good news paper.  Not avoiding what is happening in the world, but at least balancing the bad news with good news.  There is a magazine called ‘The Week’ which gives a summary of the week’s news and how it has been reported.  I enjoy reading it, but my favourite bit is a tiny section inside the front page called ‘It wasn’t all bad’  with an inspiring good news story for the week.  Useful for talks, speeches or homilies!

The channel adopted the BBC News style in 1999

The most powerful news agent in the UK is the BBC.  I am a big fan of the ‘Beeb’ , the quality of its programmes, podcasts are world-class.  So when I have been abroad I often boast about the BBC.  However earlier this year when I was in the Philippines, a very smart and sophisticated young man listened to me politely and then very gently pointed out to me how they consider the BBC to be anti-Christian.  I was shocked but could see the arguments he made,  it was interesting to see how popular Al Jazeera was becoming there.  Mark Thompson, the Jesuit-educated outgoing director general of the BBC  has recently admitted so. In an interview about how the BBC represents religion (click here) he said that at least in the UK, Christianity was treated as being more ‘broad shouldered’ than other religions which are much more identified with ethnic minorities. He makes a compelling point – however I think that sometimes an excellent desire for ‘tolerance’  can be distorted, and much of the liberal-elite group think that dominates the UK establishments is reflected in a prejudice against Christianity.   How the news is reported and commented on is important it should try to represent the whole of the country not just metropolitan elites and their incestuous media cities.   This summer the collective power of the media has played a huge role in the feel-good factor, that should be the real legacy as we head into an autumn of strikes, squabbles and X Factor!

Below is a small excerpt of Mark Thompson’s interview – click here for the full length.

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