Sunday, 22 December 2013

Hungry Christmas: Food Bank Use Soars

This Christmas more people than ever will be relying on food banks in the UK. Despite the government's talk of a recovery, thousands of people across the country are going into the Christmas period with the grinding desperation of poverty and hunger hanging over them.

In my report, Hungry Christmas, I've exposed a huge increase in the number of people relying on food banks in South East England. The region - the second richest in the UK - has seen a 60% increase in the number of people relying on emergency food handouts this year and the total number of those needing emergency food handouts is likely to hit 70,000 for the year April 2013- April 2014.

These statistics are shocking enough, but behind each statistic is the story of someone who is living in the sixth largest economy in the world yet struggling to feed themselves and their family.
This year I've toured my constituency visiting the food banks which are straining to keep up with rising demand. It's at these food banks that I've met people like John.

He was now volunteering after receiving help from the food bank at a time in his life when he had lots of problems. By degrees he'd lost his good job, his accommodation, developed a drug habit and drifted into street drinking, until his life was in a very dark place.
He told me he thought that a lack of food was the least of his worries: he could always scavenge or beg. But he realised that he eventually needed to get back to a 'normal life' and regular meals, or he would die.

I also met Mary*, a single parent who just can't keep up with the expense of clothing and feeding her children, and often goes without food herself so her kids can eat. For her, the food bank was a lifeline at a time of desperation.

The two major reasons people give for going to food banks are benefits problems (delays, sanctions and changes) and low incomes. There's evidence to suggest that the former has been exacerbated by the government's 'crackdown' on benefits claimants and their changes to social security. The latter reason, which explodes the myth of people being able to 'work their way out of poverty', reflects the fact that wages have stagnated in real terms for a decade now.

This Christmas many of us will be giving a bit of our money to the many good causes who help those in need. But, while charity is essential for assisting the vulnerable, it's vital that we don't let ourselves slip into thinking that the poverty so many of us face is inevitable or uncurable. In twenty first century Britain nobody should have to rely on handouts to get by at Christmas time, and no government should be allowed to get away with letting this situation develop.

If we are to tackle the poverty faced by so many in the UK we need to ensure that people have access to jobs which pay enough to build a life on and adequate social security protection when times are tough.

Let's make sure that the good yuletide feelings don't let us forget or forgive this Government for passing on a financial crisis to the poorest in society. And let's ensure that in 2014 we say to this government loud and clear that poverty in this country is a result of their politics, and we won't stand for it anymore.

*names of food bank users have been changed
Keith Taylor is a Green party MEP

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Sunday, 8 December 2013

Junior Murvin has died but the story of Police and Thieves lives on

The Jamaican reggae singer, who died on Monday, bequeathed us an anthem whose indictment of policing still rings true

When Superintendent Leroy Logan stepped down as the highest-ranking African-Caribbean officer in the Met this summer, he entertained his retirement party guests with his rendition of Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves. The irony was not lost on myself and others present. The tune is iconic. Even among coppers. Despite its critique of the profession.

Having said that, many reggae lovers will struggle to identify the song's singer, Junior Murvin, who died on Monday in relative obscurity compared with the global success of his reggae anthem.

The tune was the soundtrack to the Notting Hill carnival in the summer it was released, 1976. The perfect groove for a hot and sticky August bank holiday on the streets of west London. Eerily, the record had been pumping out of sound systems and shebeens in London W10 and W11 postcodes in the days and hours before the community tensions of the time erupted in an all-out battle between (predominantly) black youth and the (predominantly) white police on the streets of Ladbroke Grove. Everywhere you went for the following few weeks – parties, blues dances and even university student unions – the tune was being rinsed out like it was the pick of the pops.

Every young rebel seemed to have a copy. Joe Strummer and his bandmates included. Even though John Peel had been playing Murvin for months, it was the Clash's version on their debut album that would turn the song into a punk anthem. Strummer told me he preferred Murvin's original. It was one of his favourite records.

So too, it seemed, for anyone who had a beef with the police throughout the rest of the 70s and 80s and maybe right through to the 90s. It even charted – four years later, in 1980 – and Murvin obligingly took the militant road to Top of the Pops. The following year it was the theme to the Brixton riots and subsequently to much of the social unrest during Margaret Thatcher's premiership.

Its comparison of police with thieves and any other criminals "scaring the nation" was written for the politically manipulated war zone that was Kingston, Jamaica, at the time – where you were as frightened of the constabulary as you were of the gunmen – but was subtle enough to resonate in these shores where the Dixon of Dock Green image of the obliging copper was being eroded by the image of uniformed thugs jumping out of black mariahs. What we didn't get at the time was that the "police" and the "thieves" were the emissaries of the politicians who ran the system.

But somewhere along the way its meaning started to fade and it became a party song rather than an indictment of the forces of law and order. Somewhere along the way it became OK for an outgoing Met superintendent to spoof it.

Everybody now knows, of course, that the old bill's antagonism towards black men never went away and that institutional racism is alive and well in the police force. But a new generation wasn't interested in dancing away its anger to one of the most seductive reggae songs you'll ever hear. It's too subtle for those weaned on NWA's cut-to-the-chase Fuck Tha Police.

Today, when it comes to cops and daylight robbers, there are no passing "anthems". Only the monstrous anger of direct action as we witnessed in the 2011 riots, a response to the police killing of Mark Duggan. In the Tottenham area where I live and in the areas I pass through – Harlesden, Brixton, Peckham, Hackney, Moss Side and other "hoods" – nobody is chanting the "downfall of Babylon" any more. But it doesn't mean they're not still angry with the belief that the police can kill a black man in broad daylight without consequences, and at being stopped and searched many more times than their white mates, and that the whole racist system compels half of young black men to languish on the dole. They're not stupid. They know who the "police" are and they know who the "thieves" are. They get it. They're just not voicing their frustrations through a pop song.

Written by Dotun Adebayo and first published at The Guardian

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Why COP 19 fell woefully short of the urgent action we need

Why COP 19 fell woefully short of the urgent action we need

History was made at the UN climate talks last week – not by the achievement of a breakthrough in negotiations, unfortunately, but by the unprecedented walk-out by 800 civil society groups and trade unions.

Citing the appalling lack of ambition and commitment manifest at the 19th yearly session of the global climate change conference, NGOs blamed the lobbying from fossil fuel companies for impeding progress at the talks.   As WWF put it, “Warsaw, which should have been an important step in the just transition to a sustainable future, is on track to deliver virtually nothing.  We feel that governments have given up on the process.”

Their frustration was well founded.  The industrialised countries like Japan and Australia used the talks to officially scale back their climate commitments, and the demands of poor countries for clarity on greater climate finance were stonewalled.  At the same time, the EU’s credibility was undermined by its failure to increase its completely inadequate 20% greenhouse gas reduction target for 2020.

Poignantly, the conference began on the day that Typhoon Haiyan dissipated, and  in admirable solidarity with the people of his country, the lead negotiator of the Philippines fasted throughout, joined by many representatives of environmental NGOs attending the conference.   Sadly, the immediate evidence of the human costs of climate change represented by Haiyan and other recent extreme weather events did not provide a catalyst for the international action desperately needed.

Perhaps it was never a propitious sign that the talks were taking place in Poland, whose Government’s lack of commitment to reduce its use of fossil fuels has earned it the nickname ‘Coalland’.  Just under of 90% of the country’s electricity is sourced from coal.   Outrageously, representatives of the Polish Ministry of the Economy co-hosted an event with the World Coal Association in parallel with COP 19, giving lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry a valuable platform, and sending the provocative message that the ongoing cosy relationship between governments and the fossil fuel companies is perfectly compatible with efforts to reduce emissions.

So what did the talks deliver by way of positive outcomes?  The top-line political agreement was pretty uninspiring – nations are to “initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions” (rather than commitments) ideally, but not definitively by the first quarter of 2015, leaving huge wiggle room for nations to continue to procrastinate.  The agreement around compensation for vulnerable countries for the loss and damage resulting from climate change was similarly weak, with no guarantees of actual compensation.

There was some very limited progress: agreement on a mechanism to fund and manage forest protection projects, and a new initiative to work with the IT industry to maximise its potential to curb emissions.  The world’s least developed countries announced that they had submitted detailed climate adaption plans, indicating that progress is being made on capacity building – creating the infrastructure and policies they need to support effective climate adaptation projects.

But this falls woefully short of the urgent action needed.   Now that no-one with any credibility seriously disputes the reality of anthropogenic climate change, the argument now goes along the lines of “What’s the point in us taking action to reduce carbon emissions when China is building four new coal-fired plants every week?”  This argument must not be allowed to gain any traction.  The notion that the UK or other developed nations are somehow doing too much to reduce their emissions is preposterous.  The UK subsidised the fossil fuel industry to the tune of £4.3 billion in 2011.  The ODI says rich nations are spending seven times more supporting coal, oil, and gas than they are on helping poorer nations address climate change.

Until we tackle the undue influence of the fossil fuel industry over domestic policy here in the UK and over international talks, the world will not rise to the challenge of taking action on climate change at the pace and scale needed to secure a safe future.  Over 70 organisations have called for new rules to safeguard global climate talks from fossil fuel influence, in order to give them at least a fighting chance of being able to deliver what the science and equity demand.

The UK should commit to supporting such new rules by ending the undue access and influence of companies who profit from more emissions and lobby against effective action, ignoring the reality that if we are to have a good chance of keeping emissions below 2 degrees, at least four fifths of known fossil fuel reserves need to remain in the ground.

In Westminster, I’ve orchestrated debates, asked questions and written letters, and yes, taken peaceful direct action, to try to persuade the Government to commit to replacing their support for fossil fuels with greater promotion of renewables and energy efficiency instead.

Later this year, MPs will have an opportunity to close the loophole in the Energy Bill would allow older coal power stations to stay open and escape the emissions limit.  This is the kind of action we need to pressure our representatives to take, and we don’t need to wait to COP 20 to do it.

Caroline Lucas Green Party MP for Brighton Pavillion