Social Justice. Equality. Enterprise.

Religion, Refugees & The Big Society


Catholic Church: Big Society is failing


The Telegraph, 16 Apr 2011

Britain's most senior Catholic leader has warned David Cameron not to use the Big Society as "a cloak for masking cuts".

The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, criticised the Prime Minister's flagship policy as lacking "teeth". The archbishop has been one of the most prominent supporters of the Big Society, but he told The Sunday Telegraph that he feared communities hit by the economic downturn would suffer if they did not get support.

The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales said Catholics were afraid the Coalition was "washing its hands" of its responsibilities to communities and expecting volunteers to fill the gap.

"It is all very well to deliver speeches about the need for greater voluntary activity, but there needs to be some practical solutions. At the moment the Big Society is lacking a cutting edge. It has no teeth."

Archbishop Nichols said Mr. Cameron's project was at a critical stage, and predicted that the next few months could determine its success in alleviating the potentially damaging effects of government spending cuts.

He has previously spoken enthusiastically of the potential for the Big Society to transform society, with its emphasis on "localism" – handing greater responsibility to communities to govern themselves. Among new powers planned in the Localism Bill introduced last December, communities are to be given influence over council tax increases and the option of taking over state-run services.

However, the archbishop warned:

"Devolving greater power to local authorities should not be used as a cloak for masking central cuts. It is not sufficient for the Government, in its localism programme, simply to step back from social need and say this is a local issue."

His comments are likely to be seized on by Labour as evidence of growing concern over the impact the Government's spending cuts will have on communities.

Leading charity figures, including Sir Stephen Bubb, the head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, have suggested that the scale of cuts could undermine the vision of the Big Society.

"We're now at a very critical point, with the philosophy of the Big Society getting clearer, but on the other hand the effects of the cuts are becoming real and there's real pressure about what will happen on the ground," said Archbishop Nichols.

"As we said in our discussion document, a government cannot simply cut expenditure, wash its hands of expenditure and expect that the slack will be taken up by greater voluntary activity."

The discussion document was published at a meeting held by the Catholic Church to discuss the Big Society and attended by politicians, including Baroness Warsi, the co-chairman of the Tory party.

Concerns were raised by Fr James Hanvey, one of the archbishop's advisers, that the Government was pushing through policies similar to those of the Thatcher and Major governments, which were seen by some to be divisive.

"The political question that hangs over the Big Society is its provenance," said Fr Hanvey. "Has the Conservative part of the Coalition simply seized the economic crisis as an opportunity to push through the unfinished neoliberal agenda of the last Conservative administration? We should not forget the enormous social division that was entailed in this. It signaled the end of a humanist and humane consensus in British society."

Archbishop Nichols said there was a worrying tendency for the poorer sections of society to be worst affected by cuts and accused the banks of failing to contribute their share to helping the victims of the economic crisis.

"The poorest are taking the biggest hit while at the same time you see huge bank bonuses and profits and this is not right," he said.

Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, said: "We are absolutely up front about the need for cuts. We cannot go on with debts costing £120 million in daily interest alone. However, as we change the business of government we are changing it to support a bigger, stronger society."

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Is the 'Big Society' open to Refugees,

asks Archbishop?


Ekklesia, 23 April 2011

In his Holy Week message, the Anglican Archbishop of York has asked whether Britain's 'Big Society' is doing enough to help refugees.

Linking his concern to personal experience and the Easter message of new life in the midst of turmoil and injustice, the second most senior leader in the Church of England calls for a welcoming society - even in the face of economic restraint.

The Most Rev Dr John Sentamu concludes: "Let Easter be a time of hope for everyone – but especially the broken, the homeless, the fugitive and the destitute."

The full message is as follows: 

"In 1973 I was forced to flee Idi Amin's brutal regime. I found compassion and care in Britain. Today, I want to live in a society that holds out the same hope for fugitives.

The events of the first Easter were told against a social backdrop of violence, injustice, migration, and the desperate search for safety. Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover that week, a festival that recalled their forebears' desperate flight from Egypt as refugees. Generations before, their ancestors had gone to Egypt as economic migrants. In the past weeks, as the turmoil in the Middle East has played out, Egypt has once again found itself a refuge for those seeking sanctuary. Having made historic changes in its own political settlement, it is admitting fugitives from the conflict in neighbouring Libya.

Today, no country should have to act alone, and those states affected by recent political upheaval are assisted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. International arrangements are in place to ensure that victims of violence and torture, and any in need of international protection, are given a chance both of surviving immediate crises and of finding security for the future.

The persistence of violence and injustice anywhere is regrettable but the international agreements to protect refugees are a mark of human progress, and indeed arise from a virtue common to many religions – the virtue of hospitality to the stranger and the alien.

In stretching economic times, it is not surprising that those who foot the bill for humanitarian provision should, along with others, have to find ways of increasing efficiency and cutting costs. But I hope that, as a nation, we are as committed as ever, even now, to those values which have made Britain great, among them a firm conviction that it is our duty to come to the aid of the oppressed, and to offer protection where it is needed.

Immigration and asylum is an area of moral debate where there is often more heat than light. This week, for example, we have seen France closing its border with Italy to prevent desperate new migrants fleeing unrest in North Africa reaching its territory.

But to assess whether there really is a refugee or migration "crisis" we must consider the evidence carefully. And one key area of research must surely be into what happens to "failed" asylum-seekers who are returned to their country of origin. More notice needs to be taken, I believe, of increasingly unpalatable evidence from countries like Congo and Cameroon that some returnees from the UK, including those with young children, are subjected to imprisonment, torture, abuse and starvation. By the time we learn of their appalling fate, it is too late to say, "we got it wrong".

The UNHCR recently released a report which found that during 2010 some 358,800 asylum applications were made in the 44 industrialised countries. US, France, Germany, Sweden and Canada were the largest asylum recipients in 2010 and accounted for more than half of all asylum applications received by these 44 states.

But applications for asylum in industrialised countries are more than 40 per cent lower than they were 10 years ago and many have raised concerns that this is partly due to tighter immigration controls which are stopping refugees from seeking protection in these countries. The fact is that globally there are no fewer refugees than before: it is just that most refugees continue to be assisted in poor countries.

Tunisia and Egypt, for example, despite the turbulence of recent weeks, have both recently pledged to allow the thousands of Libyans fleeing the escalating conflict to enter their territory. Meanwhile, some hundreds of thousands of Ivorians fleeing the recent violence in Cote d'Ivoire have received assistance in eight West African countries. Let us hope that the conflict there is truly coming to an end now, but for the time being the number of people who have become refugees as a result of these conflicts in West Africa alone is equivalent to the total number of asylum applications that the UK has received in the last five years. In 2010, the UK received its lowest number of asylum applications since 1989.

Given that the number of asylum-seekers and refugees who end up in the European Union is now relatively small, it is particularly important that we respond to individuals who do seek sanctuary in our countries in a principled and compassionate way. This should include providing protection to all those fleeing persecution or escaping situations of conflict and widespread human rights violations, and providing adequate support to those in the asylum system so that they can meet their essential living needs.

When the public-spending cuts bite, it should not be the most vulnerable of all who suffer. It usually falls to local refugee groups, and often to churches, like many I visit in the north of England, to support those who are struggling to live on the meagre levels of support offered to asylum-seekers. How "Big" is our "Big Society" in relation to these people? There will always be those who need our protection and our support – are we big-hearted enough to accept this? It would be tragic if, because of misplaced fears over immigration numbers, we shut our doors to those seeking sanctuary from persecution.

In 1973, I myself was a refugee who had to escape Idi Amin's brutal regime in Uganda. Many of my contemporaries were not so lucky. I was received in Britain with great compassion and care – it was almost a home from home. Yes, one room in a communal house sufficed for me, my wife and daughter. However, I recall the struggles of surviving on the very limited financial support available at the time, and I also recall the generosity of those who went out of their way to make us welcome. I would like to think that those genuinely needing protection today find that Britain is no less committed to help than its partners in the international community.

Easter for Christians is a time of rebirth, resurrection and good news. I would like to see that message transformed into something very practical, human and down-to-earth. I want to belong to a society that treats its vulnerable people with respect, and which holds out the hope of a new life for those who have been battered, bruised and abused. This is a desire I share with many fellow travellers, those with and without belief in God.

Let Easter be a time of hope for everyone – but especially the broken, the homeless, the fugitive and the destitute


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