Posted in Poverty and Justice

Ability and disability

As the next tranche of benefit cuts come into force, it seems to be more and more difficult for people to see the human stories which lie behind the headlines and instant opinions. I’m very glad to be able to share (with her permission) Valerie Lang’s reflections on the changing culture in which we live – and the way in which it is becoming more difficult for disabled people to enter the workplace, even as they are being hectored more and more to do so.

As a disabled person I found it very difficult to find work in the 1960s and ’70s, even though I had a lot going for me. Certainly in the ’60s rates of unemployment were much lower, I had a degree from the London School of Economics, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Librarianship. I also had employers and friends willing to recommend me to one another. Because of this help I was in fact never out of work until I retired in 1997.

Today the Government says that it wants more disabled people to go and find work. But does it?

It has reduced the availability of the Access to Work scheme, which paid for adaptations in the work place. Its “Bedroom tax” will force many disabled people out of their homes and localities. (Yes, Local Government can help them to stay where they are, but only for a short time.) Its press allies run numerous stories about benefits cheats and disabled people who don’t get out of bed, leading to a public perception that 7 out of 10 disabled people are cheating. This is a far cry from the DWP’s own statistics which show that fraudulent claims of Disability Living Allowance have been only 0.5%, a fact that the Government chooses to ignore.

Further, the private company Atos, contracted to assess who is fit for work apparently tells blind people who can find their way around their own homes, that this means that they are fit for work. This is in spite of a DWP survey finding that over 90% of employers saying that they would not employ a blind person. About 40% of disabled people who have contested Atos findings that they are fit for work have had their appeals upheld. Instead of radically changing the fit for work test, the Government has simply  stopped Legal Aid from being available for such appeals.

The Government seems to think that jobs grow on trees – to be picked at any time someone cares to go and look. In fact one can only get a job if an employer takes one on. Does the Government not realise, or does it just not care, that potential employers read the same stories about so called cheats and scroungers? What employer is going to pick the disabled so-called skiver when there is a whole queue of non-disabled applicants waiting?

I certainly would not have found work if I had faced the same barrage of anti-disability rhetoric in the media. It was difficult enough to persuade employers to look beyond my disability – which affected my speech as well as all my limbs. It is indeed possible for disabled people to hold down good jobs, but only if they are taken on, and given a proper chance. Before I retired I had become a Senior Research Officer, at the Civil Aviation Authority, but I very much fear that today’s disabled people will not get the chance to work that I had.

In fact it is my opinion that the Coalition Government, too afraid to deal with the Bankers’ part in the current economic debacle, would prefer to blame disabled people for almost all of the country’s economic woes – scapegoats in the traditional Biblical sense.

Valerie Lang, MBE, BSc(Econ.)

Posted in Church of England

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble?

This has been a terrifying week for many of us, and for many others even more directly caught up in the violence that has emerged onto our streets. It serves as a reminder – one that we could all do without – that our civilisation is not as rock steady as we might like it to be. We have been aware (some of us more intimately than others) of the turmoil that has rocked the financial world over the last few years. More of us are aware of the cuts being made to public services – either through seeing our own jobs disappear, or the services we’ve become used to being cut back. But all of us walk these streets; this is our space. Stoke Newington itself has been spared – perhaps particularly because of the vibrant community spirit of the Turkish shopkeepers and their baseball bats, perhaps because of the police station. But that is small consolation to us, and none to the neighbouring communities who have seen disorder out of control on their doorsteps.

Is God really our refuge and strength? It’s when there is real danger that we find ourselves tested as to whether we really believe those words. It’s easy to believe all sorts of great things about God if actually the police will do the job anyway. But when it’s not so clear that anyone else can keep us safe – what do we believe about God then? What might the psalmist have believed, whoever it was that wrote those words?

The psalms contain within them the hugest variation of experiences of God and responses to God. One of the most extreme s Psalm 89, the first half of which is a song of praise to God for establishing David’s kingly line for ever and ever with an iron cast guarantee. The second half begins ’But now you have rejected and spurned him; you are full of wrath against your anointed – and continues in that vein – one of the biggest turnarounds you can imagine. An expression of absolute faith by the psalmist can’t necessarily be taken at full value as a statement of historical fact. There are all sorts of things that happen, some of which encourage faith and some which seem to deny it – the psalmist has the lot.

But even with that warning, this psalm, Psalm 46, does express a deep faith that God will look after the chosen people – that he will take away all the world’s violence – as the BCP Psalter puts it, ‘He maketh wars to cease in all the world; he breaketh the bow, and knappeth the spear in sunder’.  Now we know what that doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean what it says. God did not then, and has not since, intervened to prevent wars from happening. The people of Israel fought plenty of wars and went into exile when they finally lost one too many.

It’s only in the light of Jesus that we can make sense of either the Bible, or our own experience. Jesus transforms what it means to overcome violence, what it means to bring peace. He overcomes not through more and better violence but by ending the cycle, by changing the game. That’s why a Christian attitude towards the events of the last week must stand against the insanity of mob violence – and the calculated, orchestrated violence of looters. But we must also point to the fact that the re-assertion of state power – which is a better sort of violence, violence controlled by law – isn’t the same as restoring peace. Peace is what we hope for which lies beyond the realm of all violence: it’s the life of the kingdom of heaven which the resurrection reveals to us. Our attitude to what has happened shouldn’t be shaped by our instant and emotional responses, natural as they are. The Spirit in us enables us to see all violence in the light of this hope and conviction – that violence itself will end

So as Christian people we don’t just take sides. We know that we still need state-sanctioned and controlled violence – that’s why police forces should still be called that. They are society’s recognition that the use of force is necessary to preserve society in being. But we are also aware that violence begets violence – it was police violence – possibly completely justified, we can’t judge that now – which lit the fuse. Let me be clear: the police are in no way responsible for the explosion that followed; it’s part of the dynamic of violence itself.

So even while looking to see order restored, we’re looking beyond that for something even better. Because of that greater promise which goes beyond this world we’re able to engage with this one. God is our refuge and strength – a refuge which is in the promised future of the resurrection. In that strength, we are able to be God’s hands and heart in our situation.

One of the articles commenting on the events of the last week reflected on the Turkish shopkeepers taking action – and quoted an ironic tweet, ‘”Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, defending our boroughs & communities.” – while the article’s writer admitted she was sitting at home trying to distinguish the sound of helicopters on the TV from the ones overhead, dealing with riots just around the corner.

I’m very glad there were people who were brave enough; our calling is to be just as brave, to get out there and to be part of our wider community, to defend, nurture and build it, and not only at times of crisis. A time of crisis is a time of judgement – that’s what the Greek word means. Times of crisis demonstrate whether we have the faith that makes us strong enough to strengthen others, to help rebuild shattered lives. One of the saddest things I saw on the TV was the shopkeeper who refused help from people clearing up – they might just steal more. Rebuilding faith, hope and love is our job now.

Posted in politics

Made in Britain – what next?

Well, it's what we're good at making.
Just watching Evan Davis’s Made in Britain. Davis visits some of Britain’s industrial and manufacturing successes; he tries to correct the self-flagellation we tend to adopt when talking about our economy. And, yes, I can see his point about the way industry moves on, and the way in which the British economy has kept on moving into the high value areas: design and selling both make loads more money than running the factories. And it is nice to see a programme which isn’t completely downbeat about Britain – but … living in Hackney, it’s all too obvious that the successes he pulls out share one key factor – they don’t need so many people. Again and again, manufacturers wander around their factories pointing out that a process which used to need a small army can now be handled by one person.

Here in Hackney, lots of people are making a good living out of the new economy. Lots more are making no living at all. Britain is making more money, but as today’s numbers tell us, right now average take-home pay is on its way down, not up. My last post suggested that a Christian view of economic life, whatever else it might contain, had to start from looking at how well or how badly the poorest in society are treated. Reading today the Richard Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics, I was glad to find I was in reputable company. In the introduction to the second edition he says: ‘If the Bible has an economic preoccupation, it is with the plight of the poorest people’. The globalised economy that Evan Davis describes might not have been a disaster for GB plc, but it has been bad news for many of its now-unnecessary inhabitants.

And I wondered – what next? Right now, service industries do what the factories used to: provide unsatisfying low-paid jobs for a vast number of people. But that won’t last for ever. It was once agriculture, then it was manufacturing, now it’s Starbucks and call centres. If the pattern continues, those jobs too will be replaced – probably not by factories in Shanghai, but through increasing automation. I’m an example myself. I scarcely ever talk to anyone at my bank: I can do it all more easily online.

The what does everyone do? The money will continue to be made, even more of it, but it will flow into even fewer hands. And given the globalised nature of finance and power, it’s unlikely to become easier for governments, even if they want to, to reclaim that income for the poor by taxation. So what next? The other book I’m reading is Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right. Many things I still don’t buy into, but Marx’s vision of human flourishing beyond capitalism is right on the button:

“production” in Marx’s work covers any self-fulfilling activity: playing the flute, savouring a peach, wrangling over Plato, dancing a reel, making a speech, engaging in politics, organising a birthday party for one’s children. It has no muscular, macho implications. When Marx speaks of production as the essence of humanity, he does not mean that the essence of humanity is packing sausages. Labour as we know it is an alienated form of what he calls “praxis”—an ancient Greek word meaning the kind of free, self-realising activity by which we transform the world.

Maybe we will be finally forced to look for something else, which isn’t about the continued increase of wealth – and start to think about what is the point of having it. Maybe we won’t have any choice but to question the ‘latest phase of the Enlightenment meta-narrative of progress’ (Bauckham’s description of globalisation as an ideology). But there are always choices. Dystopia or utopia? I think it’ll be one or the other – the middle way is disappearing ahead of us.