Thursday, 31 January 2013

Time to stop gambling with our future? First signs of a rethink on dangerous gaming machines

A recent Government statement suggests that critics who have been warrning of the normalisation of gambling in the United Kingdom are getting their message across. While the Government has announced no specific measures to reverse the dangerous trends of recent years, it endorses what charities, churches and campaigning groups have been saying: gambling is not just another leisure activity but dangerous in view of the extreme harm that problem gambling can cause individuals and communities.

In 2011 the Methodist Church and its ecumenical colleagues were invited to give written and oral evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s enquiry into the implementation of the Gambling Act 2005. The churches were among the few groups to state clearly that the evidence from the Gambling Prevalence Survey in 2010 was worrying. The Act specifically mentioned the need to protect children and vulnerable adults. If the Act was working as it should, problem gambling should have gone down. Instead, not only had it maintained previous levels: it had risen. (Despite a largely unsympathetic response, the Committee asked the Methodist Church for supplementary evidence on key areas, which may be viewed here.) 

The Committee’s subsequent report showed little recognition of the seriousness of the situation. One of the Churches’ key concerns was around the clustering of betting shops on high streets, particularly in poorer areas. This is largely because these are allowed to contain up to 4 of the profitable and highly addictive, casino style B2 gaming machines. The Committee recommended that  betting shops be allowed to contain more than 4 B2 machines: this would enable the industry to maintain its profits without needing so many betting shops on the high street. But at a time of increasing poverty and inequality, it is unacceptable that the gambling industry should seek to maximise its profits in ways which will impact on vulnerable communities. 

It is somewhat encouraging that the Government’s statement says “It would not be right for the Government to consider any liberalisation with regard to category B2 machines until evidence is in place, potential options for harm mitigation are better understood and the industry has demonstrated its capability to manage better the harm its products may cause to some customers”. However the need for caution remains: this suggests that continued liberalisation is basically desirable, even of category B2 machines, as long as the industry makes some improvements in harm mitigation. It also focuses concern on 'some customers', supporting the outdated view that addiction is only a problem of a susceptible minority. But churches and charities argue that research already shows liberalisation has gone too far and too fast and that the Government should return to a default assumption of caution rather than laissez-faire in gambling policy.

Other statements suggest greater awareness that Government policy since 2005 has involved risky liberalisation and that greater regulation is required. The draft legislation requiring all gambling operators selling into the UK market to obtain a license from the Gambling Commission will be introduced as soon as possible. This is necessary to prevent a free for all of unregulated online gambling. Also the Government has retained the right to impose a statutory levy on the gambling industry to provide sufficient funds for research, education and treatment around gambling and problem gambling. This is important as it has not yet been proved that the current system of voluntary donations is sufficient to ensure funds for suitable research.

From 2005 onwards, stakes and prizes on gambling machines have increased, advertising on television and gambling has been legalised and online gaming and advertising has proliferated. The Churches have been among the few groups that have argued the need for caution and public protection. It remains to be seen how the Government will enforce its commitment to ensuring public protection and a balance between the needs of the gambling industry and the bodies that regulate it. This is a small but significant victory for campaigning groups and churches, but those concerned must continue to make their voices heard, locally and nationally.

Monday, 28 January 2013

London Launch of Enough Food for Everyone IF

The world produces enough food for everyone, but not everyone has enough food.

 Tim Whitby for Getty Images
Getting hundreds of people (myself included) to stand outside for an hour on a very cold winter’s evening is no mean feat but it happened.  Wednesday 23 January saw months of work and planning come to fruition with events around the country to launch the new campaign supported by more than 100 NGOs and faith groups, Enough Food for Everyone IF.   

In London, Somerset House with its vast courtyard provided a spectacular setting for the challenging films and celebrity speeches projected across one wing of the building.  Arriving early with colleagues, I certainly felt the sense of anticipation that precedes such occasions as people gathered, young and old, different cultures and backgrounds, all committed to taking action together to bring an end to the scandal of hunger.

So why a new campaign this year?  The UK assumes the presidency of the G8 and David Cameron  has committed to hosting a Hunger Summit prior to the G8 Summit in June.  It is a crucial opportunity for the UK to show leadership in tackling the four big IFs:

Aid   Enough food for everyone IF we give enough aid to stop children dying from hunger and help the poorest families have enough food to live.

Land  Enough food for everyone IF we stop poor farmers being forced off their land, and we grow crops to feed people not fuel cars.

Tax  Enough food for everyone IF governments stop big companies dodging tax in poor countries, so that millions of people can free themselves from hunger.

Transparency  Enough food for everyone IF governments and big companies are open and honest about the actions that prevent people getting enough food.

IF our leaders take these steps, it will change the future for millions of people who live with the day to day struggle of hunger. This year could be the beginning of the end for global hunger.    

Change happens when motivated individuals persuade others to act with them to tackle injustice, as evidenced by the campaign to abolish the slave trade (as actor Bill Nighy reminded us on Wednesday evening), and more recently, Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History.  But it’s a long haul.  IF is all set to join that list but this year will only be the start.  

The Methodist Church, Methodist Relief and Development Fund, the United Reformed Church and the URC’s Commitment for Life programme have all signed up to the campaign and will be helping to resource action and reflection during the year. 

There’s an enormous amount of information already so find out how you, your church and community can get involved in IF.     


Thursday, 24 January 2013

Israel's election – rise of moderate centre parties still leaves future negotiations with Palestinians uncertain

In Israel’s election on Tuesday Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu polled more than any other party albeit with a substantially reduced number of seats.  The biggest surprise is the strong showing of the newly formed centrist Yesh Atid party that has secured 19 Knesset seats.  Its leader and former TV broadcaster Yair Lapid stated before the election that he would only join a coalition that was seriously committed to negotiations with the Palestinians[1].

Israel’s system of proportional representation has ensured that no one party has ever been able to deliver an outright majority in Government.  But yesterday’s election results were particularly confusing, splitting the Knesset down the middle with 60 seats each for the right wing and Centrist/left blocks.   In order to form a government Binyamin Netanyahu is “reaching across the aisle” to potential centrist coalition partners such as Yesh Atid.

If, as is likely, Netanyahu succeeds in forming a coalition involving one or more of the centrist parties, it is doubtful that this would bring about any significant change of direction on policies towards a peace process.
Firstly we should not attempt to read into the results of the Tuesday’s election shifts in Israeli public opinion on dealings with the Palestinians or on policy towards Iran.  While these may be a consideration for voters, domestic issues are the main priority. 

Secondly most in the former right wing coalition had been looking forward to a clearer policy rejecting any further compromise with Palestinians and pursuing an assertive and unapologetic policy on illegal settlement expansion.  Netanyahu has a rather tepid commitment to negotiations with Palestinians but the majority of those on the Likud Beiteinu Party list do not support negotiations of any form.  One Likud Member of the Knesset asserted last week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2009 speech calling for a Palestinian State was no more than a tactical manoeuvre to placate the world and that the party remains opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian State.  Yair Lapid has been critical of Netanyahu’s lukewarm approach to negotiations and supports a near complete withdrawal from the West Bank.  But any influence arising from the presence of centrist parties joining a coalition will be constrained by a mood within Likud Beiteinu that wants to see the Government to deliver a strong and punitive response to the Palestinian’s claim for recognition at the UN. 

On the other hand, as settlement expansion continues and the prospects for a two-state solution appear to retreat further into the distance, a coalition involving Yesh Atid or others from the centre ground could provide a government that is more responsive to pressure brought to bear by the international community.  But in essence it would appear that a confused election result does not provide Netanyahu with a mandate either for conducting meaningful negotiations or for refusing to negotiate on the future of the Palestinian territories.  

[1]  Yair Lapid has also made clear that Israel’s commitment to “an undivided Jerusalem” is not up for negotiation. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Discipleship in Berlin

Germany is definitely the place to be in Advent. The Tannenbäume and festive decorations glisten in the cold, freshening air. And they look even better when it snows. The Weihnachtsmärkte liven up the broad streets with happy shoppers, brass bands and the scents of Bratwurst and Gluhwein. Reader, be in no doubt: the Germans do the biggest and best Christmas celebrations in Europe. So, with this in mind, I took off last Friday for a weekend in Berlin.

 The place was indeed roughly as outlined above. But although it is now a city of bonhomie and party fun, Berlin was in rather a different mood in December of 1944. Germany’s armies were being fought back by British and Americans in the West, and the Russians in the east. And in Berlin the Nazi government was growing ever more reliant on violent suppression to maintain its hold.

With my raging appetite for Gluhwein momentarily sated I took a stroll down Wilhelmstraβe, once the very epicentre of the Nazi regime. The street contained the central offices of the chief organs of Nazi administration. Most of the original buildings are long gone, but their former locations are clearly marked. The German army once held parades down this road in devotion to the Fűhrer. I soon came to Niederkirchnerstraβe, once known as Prinz-Albrecht-Straβe, where the Gestapo had its headquarters.  There is a museum on there now, Topography of Terror, which details the history of the SA, SS, the Gestapo and the SD and their brutal crimes.

Yet the heart of Nazi terror is also a monument to startling Christian discipleship. Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned here during the winter of 1944. That Christmas he was allowed to write a letter to his fiancé, Maria von Wedemeyer. He speaks of his joy at being able to write to her - with an enthusiasm not dissimilar to Paul’s letters from jail - and sends her these verses which he called a Christmas greeting. They later became a popular hymn.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,

And confidently waiting come what may,

we know that God is with us night and morning,

and never fails to greet us each new day.


And when this cup You give is filled to brimming

With bitter suffering, hard to understand,

We take it thankfully and without trembling,

Out of so good and so beloved a hand.


“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” as Bonhoeffer wrote elsewhere. I have sung the hymn in church a thousand times or more, but I had never quite seen the sheer devotion to God and the absolute and unquestioning surrender to his designs, until I had understood the context and location in which they were written.

Bonhoeffer was not one who by instinct campaigned against the powers that be. Rather, he was a man of books and learning. But he found that the Nazi regime left him no option. In 1939, already a man marked by the Nazi government, he left the safe haven of America to return to Germany. Most were travelling the other way. He was an avowed pacifist, but he joined a resistance group and got involved in the July bomb plot to kill Hitler. This is true discipleship in the face power. Bonhoeffer sacrificed his safety, his instincts, and his plans for the sake of a higher purpose.      

Discipleship - a word so easily used in church straplines and Bible focus groups – is a serious, sometimes life-threatening business. Its high cost, much more than the festive cheer, is surely a thing to remember in Advent. And few have understood it as well as Bonhoeffer, locked up in Prinz-Albrecht-Straβe that Christmas of 1944. 


Saturday, 1 December 2012

Daily Mail Welfare Story - Untrue and Dangerously Misleading

If I blogged every time the Daily Mail printed an untruth about people on benefits I wouldn't get away from my laptop very often. But today’s untruth is designed to soften up public opinion for benefit cuts to be announced on Wednesday – and as such it deserves some examination.

The argument from Government which is supported by this erroneous article is that the UK cannot afford the current welfare system and that its costs have spiralled out of control. Affordability is a value judgement – is the benefit of our Welfare system worth the price. The price however is a matter of fact. A useful understanding of the price is can be informed by data and is all too easily misinformed by distortions and untruths.

The key line in the article is “In 1948 spending on benefits accounted for 10.4% of Britain’s total income, against 24.2% this year.” This is under no circumstances true.

National Income is a term that generally refers to the Gross National Product* (GNP). “Benefits” is a difficult term to define but to illustrate I have produced a graph showing both the Office of National Statistics and the Department of Work and Pensions figures at their very largest. They include, in size order, pensions (over half of total spending), sickness and disability, Tax credits (ONS only) income support, unemployment (under 5% of total spending) and various other money transfers. It is a graph of Welfare spending as a proportion of GDP over time from 1979 to 2012/13. These are the numbers I have to hand  – but the point is clear – Welfare spending is a lot less than 24.2%

Graph of Welfare spending as a proportion of GDP data available Data

You may notice something else – that using the very sensible measure of Welfare spending as proportion of GDP welfare spending is still lower than the mid-1990s. Not something you will hear Government spokespeople saying. Indeed the article quotes an increase in 60% of benefits under Labour – I am sure there is a way of defining the terms such that this is true – I am equally certain it is at best a small fraction of the truth.

Other points made in the article are that the state pension has trebled since 1948 and unemployment benefit has doubled. I wouldn’t take the numbers at face value as the make up of the benefits has changed markedly eg. Pension credit, contributory pension, housing benefit, winter fuel allowance and other transfers may or may not be included in the comparison. It is important to realise that neither the state pension nor unemployment benefits have kept pace with the average wage for over 30 years. Recipients of only these basic benefits are in reality a great deal poorer than the 1980s.

Can we afford the current Welfare Budget?
In cash terms and real terms (where the numbers are adjusted for inflation) Welfare expenditure has increased – a great deal. Our personal incomes and national income has also increased a great deal – in recent years faster than the welfare budget.

The question is do we think the old, the sick and the vulnerable (who make up the vast majority of welfare recipients) should share in our increased national wealth? The alternative is that these groups become increasingly disadvantaged relative to the rest of the population. If, as I do, you think these people should not be gradually disadvantaged the comparison of national income to welfare spending is the most important measure to use. In which case we have afforded greater than the current welfare levels in the past and should not accept the argument that we are unable to afford it now.

Link to the data – workbook include graphs of the groups receiving benefits over time, essentially working age families decreasing as a proportion of spending and retired age families increasing.
*The term “total income” might mean the UK Govt’s tax take but that doesn't get to 24.2%. My best guess is that the number is derived from the ONS welfare expenditure, which is the largest measure available, and projected to be 24.17% of the Total Govt's managed expenditure in 2013/14 - nothing like "Britians Total Income".

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Palestinian statehood and need for continued reform

News has just come through on the vote at the UN recognising Palestine as a “non-member State” and Palestinians are celebrating the streets.  Several European states decided in the past few days not to oppose the vote that President Mahmoud Abbas has described as issuing "a birth certificate for the State of Palestine".
Leaders within the Palestinian Authority need to use this moment to press ahead with reconciliation and reform.  The Palestinian Authority is restricted in its ability to govern by the Israeli occupation and cannot be said to be truly sovereign even within the West Bank.  However even within the constraints imposed by occupation it must demonstrate its competence to represent diverse Palestinian interests well.  Over the past decade the Palestinian Authority has developed from a dysfunctional body with no popular mandate to an administration that shows an increasing capacity to deliver essential services, albeit highly dependent on outside donors and the willingness of the Government of Israel to pass aid funds on.  Currently corruption within the Palestinian Authority still remains a significant problem although some progress has been made.  

If the people of Palestine are to capitalise on their non-member State observer status at the UN, the Palestinian Authority must walk the walk that even UN “non-membership” implies and demonstrate to the world it is ready to move to full sovereignty.  The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights documents the abuse of basic rights in both the West Bank and Gaza.  These include; police violence (beatings etc), the use of torture by security services, the constraint on press freedom (particularly with respect to articles supportive of either Hamas or Fatah in the West Bank and in Gaza respectively) and the use of military courts without due legal process.  To be in compliance with the core values of the UN, Hamas must be unequivocal in its renouncement of attacks against civilians and show greater willingness to promote the path of non-violence.

There have been positive developments.  In October local elections were held in 92 of353 municipalities in the West Bank for the first time for 6 years.  But they were boycotted by Hamas who alleged threats, intimidation and arrests of potential candidates. 

At the UN, President Abbas is first and foremost asserting the rights of all Palestinians to self-determination but he is also appealing for the Palestinian Authority to be recognised as a body capable of managing the internal affairs of a future sovereign Palestinian state.  For this appeal to be taken seriously Fatah and Hamas must work on implementing the reconciliation agreement of May 2011 (and subsequent agreements since), achieve progress on human rights, accountability and transparency, and conduct free and fair elections.  This would, no doubt, result in further pressure on Israel to end the occupation.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Government consultation on the price of alcohol in England and Wales

At long last, the Government's alcohol strategy consultation is out. The alcohol strategy, published in March 2012, includes a commitment to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol and to consult on the appropriate price. This applies to England and Wales. The Scottish Parliament has already approved legislation for a minimum unit price of 50p, but the Scotch Whisky Association made a court challenge in July, and Bulgaria has indicated that it intends to make a similar challenge under EU competition law. Minimum pricing is already under considation in Northern Ireland. The consultation invites responses on various other proposals, including a ban on multi-buy discounts and making health a licensing objective for responsible authorities.

Medical research has concluded that minimum pricing is the most effective policy to reduce alcohol misuse which is causing serious and rising health problems and strongly implicated in many social problems like domestic violence and child neglect. 

Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches joined with other churches and charities and wrote to the Prime Minister in January 2012, calling on him to ensure that the Government implements minimum pricing without delay. David Cameron supports this policy, but the Cabinet is divided. The initial objective of the Churches' Measure for Measure campaign - to make the case for minimum pricing - was successful, but it is vital that Government act resolutely in the face of strong industry pressure and implement it at an effective price.

Unfortunately, it is a policy that often confuses people. This makes it easy for those with contrary political or economic interests to repeat half-truths or even errors, such as that it is a 'tax', that it will penalise moderate drinkers or that there is no proof it will work. In 2011 our churches produced this FAQ document which answers the most common objections.

With Scotland looking to introduce a 50p minimum price, it would make little sense for England and Wales to set theirs lower. Initial Goverment figures quoted 40p and it is likely that 45p will be the assumed figure in the debate during the consultation period. A unified 50p unit price would spread the health benefits to the whole UK and has been identified as the optimal price for limiting the worst effects of excessively cheap, strong alcohol. It would also remove the incentive to illicit cross-border trade.

We will give further updates when our Churches publish their official response. But if you are concerned about the harm caused by problem drinking, please do take a moment to complete the online consultation form - the deadline is 6 February 2013.