Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Rector, The MP and the Foodbank

David Morris MP has now replied to my second letter about his remarks concerning Morecambe Bay Foodbank. As a lot of people have shown an interest in this matter, I thought a final blog post was in order.

In his reply, Mr Morris made no reference to his comments in the Visitor, but rather asserted that he stands by his statement on his website (which is not easy to find) and has no intention of changing his position. He alleges that the Foodbank is politicised and that he has raised concerns about that with the Trussell Trust. He ended the letter saying that this concludes the correspondence he will engage with on this matter.

This leaves me with a few questions. Since Mr Morris won't engage with this further, I simply put them out there.

1) Why didn't David Morris address my specific challenge to his statement that the Foodbank was "started and run by the Labour Party"?

It is entirely plausible that the Foodbank has volunteers who are politically active, including ones aligned with the Labour Party. When I visited there was no discussion of political affiliation, but on enquiring, I understood there to be a range.

The Foodbank can't be held responsible for the political affiliation of those prepared to commit time for volunteering; the question is whether he can demonstrate that the Foodbank has been politically biased in its recruitment of volunteers.

Even if there is a disproportionate representation for Labour in the volunteer team, there is a great deal of difference between that being true and the Foodbank being started and run by the Labour Party. And what (or who) does he mean by "the Labour Party" in his allegation?

2) Why won't David Morris visit the Foodbank?

As an MP representing a political party which purports to encourage volunteering and charitable activity, I find it very strange that he hasn't visited long ago. He has said he now fears being ambushed by a political stunt: "they want me to walk through that door, take a picture of me and shout at me". Potentially any public appearance by an MP can turn into a shouting match. It suggests a lack of political courage that he isn't prepared to go and defend his corner. Much as I disliked their policies, I can't imagine that Norman Tebbitt or Mrs Thatcher would have been deterred.

It also demonstrates a lack of faith in the hand of fellowship the Methodist minister offered him in his most recent invitation. I am confident that any minister would do all they could to show hospitality, even if they disagreed profoundly. In the Visitor David Morris said he will go with national Trussell Trust and Social Services staff, so I hope he sees that through and pro-actively seeks to arrange to do so.

Another mystery about this is that in parliament on 17 Dec 2014 Mr Morris said "I have never been invited to a food bank in my constituency, although I would love to go..." (see the full text here). He also questions the levels of take up stated by the Trussell Trust. Morecambe Bay Foodbank say that 3 invitations were issued, along with a 4th indirect approach. Furthermore, the church minister also wrote to invite him. It's bewildering why he would deny this.

3) What data does Mr Morris actually want?

As stated above, Mr Morris suggested in his comments on 17 Dec 2014 that the data for Foodbanks was unclear. I have seen data being entered into the system at Morecambe Bay Foodbank, I have seen the referral forms which have to be signed by professional in the area, and I have seen the stock taking and record keeping taking place. I am sure that if Mr Morris mustered the courage to visit and explained exactly what stats he required, they could be called up for him there and then.

4) If Morecambe Bay Foodbank is really so politicised, why hasn't he taken action much sooner to get its charitable status withdrawn or reviewed?

Many individuals and organisations are supporting and donating to Morecambe Bay Foodbank in good faith that it is a legitimate charity, operating within the rules and parameters for a charity. My own parish has donated some money and we have also sent other assistance. If an organisation is not operating legitimately as a charity in the local area, but is pretending that all is well, we need to know about it and be protected from it. Surely Mr Morris has a duty of care to us all if he has compelling evidence that the Foodbank is masquerading as something that it isn't. The fact that he has not done so after so many months leads me to conclude that he doesn't possess such evidence.

If, as Mr Morris implies, Morecambe Bay Foodbank were a covert organ of the Labour Party, it's been very subtle in its methods. There is, of course, uncomfortable evidence for the government in foodbank data, but I have seen no promotion of any of the opposition parties in any of the literature I have seen, or in conversations I have held.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Follow Up letter to David Morris MP

I thought I'd publish the text of my follow-up letter to our MP concerning Morecambe Bay Foodbank

Dear Mr Morris,

You may recall that on 21st May of this year I emailed a letter to you with regard to your reported comments about Morecambe Bay Foodbank – specifically that it was “set up and run by the Labour Party”. This concerned me, as I knew it was not true, and I was concerned that if that rumour gained traction, it could discourage people of other political persuasions from donating and volunteering. I am a Trustee of West End Impact, another charity addressing some of social needs in the most deprived areas of our town, and I know how key the goodwill of the public is in supporting our work.

I know the remarks attributed to you to be incorrect, because my wife, Debbie, when working as County Ecumenical Officer for Churches Together in Lancashire hosted a lunch here at the Rectory. People present included Rev Peter Brown - the minister of Brookhouse Methodist Church, Rev Stephen Poxon – then District Chair for the North Lancashire District of the Methodist Church, and Deacon Eunice Attwood – the 2010 Vice President of Methodist Conference (the national governing body for the Methodist Church in Britain).

At that lunch, Peter shared his vision for starting up a foodbank at the old Central Methodist Church, and how they were negotiating with the Trussell Trust in taking that forward. I remember the conversation well, as I encouraged him to build links with others doing similar work, such as West End Impact and Morecambe Homeless Action.

The text of my original letter is included for your reference. I made it an open letter, posted on my blog, as I wanted as many people as possible to be reassured that Morecambe Bay Foodbank is not an organ of the local Labour Party. Indeed a local minister thanked me, as they have some Conservative voting members in their church who are very active charitably and regularly take food to the Foodbank. They had been rather alarmed by what you said, and were only reassured when they were able to read my reply.

My reasons for writing now are two-fold. First of all, I am disappointed that you haven’t yet replied to my original letter and that you haven’t issued a public correction for the remarks attributed to you by The Visitor. The second is that I gather a new piece on the issue has appeared this week in Private Eye. The only contact I have initiated with the media about this issue was a follow-up letter in the Visitor, summarising what I said and pointing people to my blog. I was also aware that the Church Times showed a brief interest in the story. The unexpected reappearance of the story in the ‘Eye’ has prompted me to contact you again.

Can I encourage you to resolve this matter by meeting with the Foodbank team? I visited soon after I sent you the first letter, and I have seen the hard work they do, the painstaking records they keep, and have also spent time chatting to clients, including an ex-para with acute PTSD. I have also seen a copy of the letter Rev Peter Brown sent you, inviting you to visit, and would strongly encourage you to accept.

Responding to the needs in front of our noses and at our doors is central to the work of these charities and volunteers, and I’m proud that churches are at the forefront of this in Morecambe.  As our MP, I would have hoped that you might want to celebrate and affirm constituents who freely give their time and energy. Working in this area also means that we have questions and uncomfortable truths for the politicians who set policy, which arise from our work. However, that doesn’t necessitate you treating the foodbank as hostile. As Robert Key, Conservative MP for Salisbury 1983-2010, and trustee of the Trussell Trust wrote recently “The … task for some in Government is to stop pretending that food banks are left-wing, anti-government troublemakers” *. I think his advice is worth listening to.

Yours Sincerely

Mike Peatman

* Robert Key: Six ways the Government can tackle poverty and work with food banks. Published on Conservative Home website

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Politicians and Prayers

I heard a discussion on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme today about the new Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, and his Christian faith.

You can listen or download it here

Tim was a colleague of mine at St Martin's College in Lancaster (now Uni of Cumbria) where he worked as a senior administrator in one of the faculties. He sometimes attended our midweek chapel worship when he was on campus, so we had a few conversations. I do remember him talking to me about his decision to go into politics. He's well-liked in his nearby constituency, and the testimony to that is that he held on to his seat in the midst of the demise of the Liberal Democrats at the last General Election.

As far as I am aware, Tim has never made any secret of his Christian faith. It's no surprise that being a Christian means you believe in God, and prayer is one of the fundamental activities. It would be quite weird, therefore, to exclude a whole area of one's life from ever being mentioned in one's own prayers. So it logically follows that a politician who is a practising Christian (or indeed of any other theistic faith) is going to bring their work into their prayers.

What's interesting is that this seemed to disconcert John Humphrys and Polly Toynbee. Polly Toynbee seemed to be saying today that he should avoid giving the impression of consulting God, and that thinking God is there is a private matter. What she didn't seem to understand was that it's not really feasible. Christian prayer is about bringing the whole of yourself to God with all your concerns, fears, hopes, dreams, brokenness, thanksgiving, etc. We don't recognise the notion that there are bits of ourselves we can't pray about.
NB It's worth noting that Tim Farron talked about prayer in response to a question on the subject from John Humphrys..

Of course, the fear that lies behind Polly Toynbee's concerns is that a politician with a religious faith might claim that God is 'on their side'. Many people in faith communities will recognise the issues that can arise if someone moves along the spectrum from saying they have prayed about something (which leaves open the answer, and retains some humility about the result) and saying that God has told them to do something. We sometimes see it in over-controlling church leaders, and it has had tragic results in politics and conflicts. I quite agree that such people are terrifying both for those with religious beliefs and those with none. However, that is not a fair description of MPs who have a faith and practise it. In fact, Christians In Parliament is a cross-party association, which indicates that the most active Christian MPs clearly don't think that God inhabits only their party, or is solely 'on their side'.

The whole discussion struck me as quite amusing this morning at our services today, as we prayed for those who govern and those who represent us. If the established church routinely prays for those who carry political responsibility, then I can't see why politicians shouldn't be free to pray for themselves without criticism.

No doubt Tim Farron will face much more scrutiny as he begins the unenviable task of reviving the fortunes of the Lib Dems. I hope the discussion moves on from where it is now, to the direction he wants to take party policy, and how he might make his party electable again. I don't envy him that job, and I reckon he will need all the prayers he can get.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Belated review of Fleetwood Mac in concert. Manchester Arena, Wed July 1

Don't Stop (Fleetwood Mac song)
Don't Stop (Fleetwood Mac song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ages ago I managed to get hold of some tickets for  one of the Manchester dates for Fleetwood Mac in concert.

They're a band with an interesting history. Originally a 1960s blues band, with its own great sound and history, it lost the genius of Peter Green and the band had to reinvent itself to survive.

They became a key part of the mid 1970s soundtrack when Steve Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined, and before too long, tracks from 'Rumours' became almost inescapable. That's a long time ago, and there has been more music and plenty of comings and going since then. Nothing was likely to top Rumours, though

Christine McVie retired from touring in 1998, so it looked unlikely that a full Rumours-era line-up would ever tour again. However, she agreed to come out of retirement for a full tour, and so we grabbed what might be a last opportunity to hear some of those songs performed by the people who recorded them.

With Debbie's illness there was at least a question mark over whether we would get there at all, but we incorporated the gig date into a mini-break in Manchester to allow plenty of rest beforehand. That way we could walk to the Arena and back with no problems.

The gig was great. There was no support, so they came on around 815/820pm and as Songbird closed the second encore, I think it was about 10-50pm. Not bad for a bunch of people in their 60s and 70s. Stevie Nicks prowled the stage for most of the time, the tone of her voice perhaps a little harsher, but still all there. Christine McVie - (72 yrs old yesterday) features on all of my favourite songs from that era, and she still sounds great too. Her solo at the end was very special. Meanwhile Lindsey Buckingham danced round the stage like a 25 year old and reminded me that not only can he sing, he's a much better guitarist than I remember.

The two guys who give the band their name kept the whole thing running. John McVie quietly got on with playing bass, as many bass players do. Meanwhile Mick Fleetwood managed to include some little speeches, a solo slot, and also a few songs on a second smaller drum kit closer to the front and his band-mates.

We got most of 'Rumours', a few from 'Fleetwood Mac' and the best of what has come since. It was a great performance of a crowd-pleasing set-list by a group who knew exactly what to do, and that seemed exactly right for something that may well turn out to be a farewell tour for this particular configuration of the band.

However, there's talk of a new album, so you never know...

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Budget: a few thoughts in the aftermath

I don't judge budgets by the "what's in it for me?" criterion that most commentators tend to apply. There's this rather worthy-sounding streak in me that says they should be judged on what they do for the nation, and especially those in most need. It's also quite complex to assess the impact as it's being delivered.

George Osborne's latest budget has left us with plenty to think about. Beforehand, he passed on the cost of the free TV licence for over-75s to the BBC. That was a welfare top-up by Gordon Brown to win favour with pensioners At the time, the money would arguably have been better spent on more targeted help for those who really needed it. As my (now 87 yr old) dad said, it was very nice, but he could afford his licence quite easily. Now the cost is carried by the BBC, and by implication licence fee payers. Any attempt to remove or reduce the benefit will now generate ill-feeling for the BBC, not George Osborne. He has effectively delegated a liability and potential blame.

This tendency to offload things went through the Budget itself. Costs were passed on to businesses, and the big surprise was a new living wage (in fact a rebrand of the minimum wage, set below the level of what was previously known as the living wage) This passes on responsibility for lifting people out of poverty from government to business. At one level, that seems entirely reasonable. The tax credit regime may well have enabled businesses to get away with low levels of pay. But this budget sought to offload the responsibility for what will become about £4bn relief to business, whilst £12bn was cut from welfare (including 'in-work' benefits) not necessarily from people who would benefit from a minimum wage increase.

That brings us to the tax credit cuts. They seem to have had a peculiarly adverse effect on clergy. One friend of mine has 3 school-age children, and his wife has chosen not to take paid employment in order to give voluntary time in the community. He took advice and found he will lose £207 per month. That's a lot to readjust your domestic budget for. Other colleagues report annual cuts of £1700, £1500 and £1300. According to the BBC online calculator, we'll lose about £890. The changes in minimum wage won't make any difference and the changes in tax threshold are already taken into account.

Now it's true that the majority of clergy don't go into the ministry for the money - you'd be a mug to do so, and most of us accept that a call to ministry means sacrifice. But clergy don't run the risk of being made homeless, as the house is provided (although that's a problem at retirement!). For most of us, it will mean being a bit more careful with the heating, using comparison sites for every major purchase or utility, shopping around at budget stores and supermarkets and taking more modest holidays. Clergy are also fortunate enough to have some charitable grants we can apply for to help with finance in times of need. It all makes things a bit harder work, and bit more austere, but we won't be homeless.

What really worries me is that if it's bad for clergy, then what are the proposed cuts going to do to others who are struggling to pay their mortgages and other bills. These changes could mean families losing their homes, and all the problems of homelessness that follow. If the calculations are right, then some of the poorer families will be absolutely clobbered by this budget. Foodbanks have already seen a surge in demand in the cuts so far; I fear we will see much more in the weeks and months to come.

So is it really worth putting people's homes at risk to enable £1,000,000 to be left in a will, tax free? Were there no alternatives? Were the money markets really so worried that we had to cut back so quickly? Is it really such a pressing necessity to get a budget surplus? It hasn't been for most of the last century.

So thanks, Mr Osborne. I'm sure I'll find ways to save £75 per month from our domestic budget - we will cope, but don't try to fool us that we will be better off as a result of your budget. We won't.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

An Open Letter to David Morris MP

An Open letter to David Morris MP

Dear Mr Morris,

This week’s Visitor newspaper reported you as saying the following about Morecambe Foodbank: “The foodbank is set up and run by the Labour party”. I am very conscious that the media are not always accurate in their descriptions of what someone has said, so if it is not what you said, I hope that you will soon be issuing a correction. If it is accurate, then I must respond as follows:

First of all, I have to challenge your account of the origins of the foodbank. When Central Methodist Church on Green Street in Morecambe closed for worship, Brookhouse Methodist Church took on the challenge of finding alternative uses for the building and to create a new project there. After an initial phase of using the building for youth and children’s work, they negotiated with the Trussell Trust to set up a foodbank. I know this because the minister of Brookhouse Methodist Church, the Methodist District Chair for North Lancashire and others sat in my dining room and shared their plans some time before it even opened. It was not set up by the Labour Party. It may well be that some who are most closely involved with running the foodbank have that political allegiance, but your implication that it was a party project from the start is wrong.

Furthermore, if I understand the rules correctly, it would be a contravention of charity law for the foodbank to be aligned with one political party. Charitable activity can have a political dimension with regard to the furtherance of its aims. However, my understanding is that an alignment with a single party would not be permissible. If you believe that Labour are running Morecambe Foodbank, then it seems to me that it is your duty to submit the evidence to the relevant authorities for investigation. If you do not have the evidence, then you should not make the accusation.

I am not involved directly with Morecambe Foodbank, but I am a trustee of West End Impact, another charity in Morecambe working with some of the neediest people in our community. We work alongside other agencies so that every day of the week there is a location in our town where people can get a drink and a bite to eat. People in need can receive personal and emotional support, obtain advice on housing and benefits, receive some emergency food and much more. Many of these centres are church based, and we all see it as an important contribution to the well-being of our community. Your comments about the foodbank affect us all, especially as your assertion of a political agenda may well deter people from supporting, donating or volunteering at Morecambe Foodbank or, by association, at other centres such as West End Impact.

You have been elected as MP for our constituency, and you therefore represent us all, not simply those who voted for you. Many people across a wide political spectrum donate, volunteer and support the centres helping the most vulnerable members of our community. I believe the onus is on you to reach out to and build relationships with the organisations which are contributing so positively in our area, even where you feel that politically you may not have a great deal in common. It is your duty to find out how to best serve the people you represent.

I hope you do visit Morecambe Foodbank, and that you also go to West End Impact, Morecambe Homeless Action, Grace Ministries, the Salvation Army and more. I believe you could learn a lot about your constituents by doing so. You would hear about their needs – their lack of food, their financial problems, housing issues, benefits sanctions, mental health challenges, struggles with addictions and more. You would also encounter and be impressed by your constituents who give great amounts of time and energy into these centres, and you will find that they are not all in the pocket of Labour or any other political party.

Yours Sincerely

Mike Peatman

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Some Electoral Statistical Anomalies

There is a lot of election post-mortem around at the moment. Did Labour lose because of policy or the personality of their leader? What will happen with the SNP? Why did no-one notice the Tories dividing and conquering their opponents and then nicking all the Lib Dem seats?

What's been more interesting is the resurgence of calls for electoral reform. The fact that UKIP got around 4 million votes but only one seat is probably a relief to many of us, but like it or not, it doesn't seem just. Likewise the SNP got just about half the Scottish votes cast, but nearly all of the seats.

It's not a new problem. Back in 1983 the SDP/Liberal Alliance got over 25% of the popular vote and only 23 seats. There's a classic John Cleese election broadcast all about it and PR 

The current election result would certainly look better for UKIP, the Greens and even the Lib Dems under a PR system, although the SNP might not be so keen! You can see an example result for 2015 here.

Here are some more anomalies. In 2015, the Conservative Party got 36.9% of the popular vote from a 66.1% turnout. That means 24.3% of the electorate gave them an overall majority. In 1979, the Labour Party got 36.9% of the popular vote (yes - the same figure) from a 76% turnout. That's 28% of the available voters. Yet the first is a victory with an overall majority, and the second was a defeat that put Labour in the political wilderness for years. Funny how times change, eh? The effect of other parties has shifted the level of support you need to win, and likely boundary changes will make it even easier for the Tories to stay in power.

Finally, the Daily Mirror came up with a fun statistic, although I think they took it a bit more seriously than I did. Apparently 901 Conservative votes switching to Labour in the seats with the smallest majorities would have stopped an overall majority. Doesn't prove anything other than votes really count in marginals, but not nearly as much in 'safe' seats (although 'safe' became a rather slippery term this election.)

Will we see PR for a UK general election. I doubt it. But politics is changing, and perhaps there will come a time when our electoral system needs review in order to reflect that properly.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Forgiveness and The Holocaust

The BBC Radio 4 Today programme contained an extraordinary interview with Holocaust survivor Eva Kor, covering her experience of being an experiment victim, the question of forgiveness and meeting former Nazi guard Oscar Groning. Click here to listen

Monday, April 20, 2015

Big Sing with Alison Adam. Sunday May 17th at 3pm

This is just a shameless plug for the fact that we have Alison Adam coming to lead a Big Sing at Morecambe Parish Church on Sunday 17th May at 3pm. Alison is a long-standing member of the Iona Community, and has worked with John Bell with the Wild Goose Resource Group,

Come along and learn new songs from the Iona community and from around the world. You'll find yourself making more music than you thought possible. No previous musical experience required!

If you would like to come, please register, either by signing up in church, or by using the Eventbrite button below. You can also use Eventbrite to register for a number of people at once, so why not get a group together.

Eventbrite - Big Sing with Alison Adam

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Bit of Political Incorrectness

The General election is nearly here, and the political conversations are littered with the phrase "hard working families". This describes in vague terms a sector of society who exemplify what politicians across quite a wide political spectrum gear their policies towards affirming and encouraging. Cameron and Miliband both litter their speeches with references to them. It's become what is sometimes known as a glittering generality.

I suspect that if we unpacked what they meant, it would be somewhat different. My hunch would be that Cameron would define them as the opposite of so-called benefit scroungers or work-shy, whereas Miliband would probably see it more as way of talking about the employed working class without sounding like a leftie and scaring the Daily Mail et al more than he already does.

My heretical thought is this: what is virtuous about being a "hard working family" anyway? What's wrong with being a working family, who earn enough to meet their bills and still have time and energy for other things? What about families where no-one can work, due to illness, disability or a lack of available jobs? What about people (hard working or not) who haven't got a family, or at least don't live in a family-type household? 

The problem with current rhetoric is that it implies that anyone not fitting the "hard working family" template is somehow less than ideal. Policy is being geared to this heroic group of people rather than the isolated, unemployed or marginalised. We already live in times where benefits sanctions are readily applied to anyone not able to comply with demanding conditions, sometimes in cases where good reasons prevented people from doing what was required. In such a punitive context, when all assessment of budgets and policy seems to be based on "what's in it for me", public opinion could very easily be tipped towards even greater restrictions on the support and help we give to the vulnerable of our society from the taxes of those the politicians charm with their hard-working rhetoric.