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Thursday, 20 January 2011

Child Poverty - a Moral Challenge

Child poverty is a moral as well as an economic challenge said Barnardo’s Chief Executive Martin Narey in a speech to the RSA last night which I attended. It marked his resignation after five years in the job.

Speaking to a packed audience in the opulence of RSA House, designed by Robert Adam in the 1770's, the contrast with his description of childhood and child poverty was stark. He drew on his experience leading the Prison Service and in the National Offender Management Service to show the connection between child poverty and prison. Britain incarcerates nearly 3000 children and young people a year and he said we were failing nearly all of them and their future victims.

Three million children live in poverty. He considered worklessness a cancer to childrens’ future. For the poor in work he called for a better deal. He had come across so many parents worn down by debt; and not to the high street banks that his audience used. They faced huge rates of interest on small sums.

Questions of “decency” and “is it right that” peppered his talk. For example, he asked was it right that child benefit was means tested yet benefits to the over-60’s (like him) such as winter fuel allowance and free TV licences were not? We certainly have to ask "is it right" about such decisions.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The "Big Society"

At a recent meeting of the ACEVO Faith Special Interest Group, which I chaired, Andrew Stunell MP, Minister at the Department of Communities and Local Government, spoke about faith-based organisations, the “Big Society” and cuts.

The new Coalition Government has made the promotion of the “Big Society” one of its key planks of policy. To most people the phrase was, and remains, unclear although the idea is now taking structural form in terms of practical proposals. Faith groups are seen by Government as important players in the “Big Society”. I therefore think that Unitarians should have something to contribute to its development.

What does the “Big Society” mean? It is an intriguing phrase. The “Big Society” idea seems to be that local communities should develop their own solutions to local problems rather than rely upon Westminster. This, of course, implies that local communities have the capacity to self organise. Mr Stunell recognised that some will certainly be able to do so as they already have a vigorous local civil society; community groups, environmental groups, sports clubs etc. Other areas, particularly in the inner cities and outer council estates, have few organisations and a smaller group of activists. They may struggle to complete for scarce Government and other resources and there is a danger that the poor will get poorer.

The churches are often the only institution remaining in some of these areas with a range of social and support services. They also have large under-used buildings in good central locations. These could be developed as promoted by One Church 100 Uses. The Government recognises this contribution and has been promoting involvement with an open door policy to church leaders.

The impact of the substantial cuts in Government spending has seen the “Big Society” presented as some form of fig leaf. Andrew Stunell was challenged by those working in frontline faith based organisations. They presented evidence that reductions in spending, especially by local government, will impact adversely on the most marginalised sections of our community; the poor, travellers and asylum-seekers. If statutory services are further squeezed it should not be taken for granted that the Churches and other voluntary agencies can pick up the pieces. It is also important to stress that volunteers are not “free"; to be truly effective they need professional support.

Unitarians should respond positively to the “Big Society” although we may feel uncomfortable with the tag. Instinctively. I feel we don’t like “Big” anything; “Big Government”, “Big Church” etc.

In practical terms therefore I would suggest that all Unitarians should reflect on their own community involvement both individually and collectively. Let us build upon our traditions of social involvement. Churches and Chapels should look to see how far they are embedded in their local community and ask themselves do they know what problems are faced by local people and if they can help. Many do already, as I see when I read Newsletters and talk to people. Even if numbers are small and aged we can always do something. There is ample scope to work with other agencies and other faith groups to build the “Big Society” as we want it.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Celebrate Rabindranath Tagore Anniversary

2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore. He was born on 7 May 1861, the youngest son of Maharshi Debendra Nath Tagore and grandson of Prince Dwarkanaith Tagore. A noted poet, novelist, musician and painter he was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913). He wrote what are the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.

For Unitarians Tagore should be a significant figure. The Tagore family were closely connected with the Brahmo Samaj; the monotheistic movement for social and religious reform which had links with Unitarianism going back to the Ram Mohan Roy, who founded the movement in Calcutta in 1828.

Tagore delivered the Hibbert Lectures on "The Religion of Man" at Manchester College, Oxford in 1930. William Radice explored this visit in an article in the most recent "Faith and Freedom" (vol 63, part 2, Autumn and Winter 2010).

In 1961 the London Brahmo Samaj celebrated the Tagore Centenary with a service at Gandhi Memorial Hall in Fitzroy Square. We have the impressive programme at Essex Hall. Rev Dudley Richards, then General Assembly Assistant Secretary, led an opening prayer. Indeed, the GA even advertised in the programme.

A Tagore poem is included in "Hymns for Living" (no 299) - "Now I Recall my Childhood". "The Real Presence" by Tagore is part of a service by Will Hayes, the well-known Unitarian Minister, in "Every Nation Kneeling" (1954).

UNESCO are playing a major role in the celebrations. A statement says that by observing his 150th birth anniversary globally, it hopes to "build up a conception of the universal reconciled with the particular, now that peace is being jeopardized nationally, regionally and internationally by identity-related and spiritual tension".