In his Christmas Message this year, the Right Reverend Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, hopes that Christians will “allow their faith and sense of belonging to grow, to live our lives hopefully and fruitfully, caring for others.” Christmas messages from the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have been critical of those Christians who are still unwavering supporters of Donald Trump. I believe there is a connection between these two points.
Last week, I said “making other people’s lives better is not just about charity. It is also about all of us contributing to a society that works for everyone. It is about making the right choices in our jobs. It is about paying our taxes.” I could also have added, it is about deciding which political priorities we support.
For the past 8 years, as the Leader of the Labour Group on Suffolk County Council, I fought to persuade the Conservative administration to spend more money on critical social needs, such as children’s centres, residential homes for older people, school improvement, bus transport, youth services and our Fire Service. We all know we need these things to build a safe and healthy society, but somehow the message was swamped by those saying that we couldn’t afford to help people and that the most important political priority was a Council Tax cut (actually portrayed as a freeze – but that is in fact a cut in real terms because it doesn’t account for inflation). Not only was our County council tax “frozen” but the Police element of council tax was also “frozen” and the national tax income was seriously eroded by the government giving huge tax cuts to people earning over £100,000 per year or who had offshore investments or who made capital gains out of selling shares. Alongside these cuts to taxes on the wealthy, we also had cuts to the support for councils, and for house-building, and for police forces – those very services which we were told we couldn’t afford.
Everyone knows the story of the fishing rod – if you give someone a fish you have fed them for a day, if you give them a fishing-rod you have enabled them to feed themselves for the rest of their lives. It’s a bit simplistic, but it’s a good principle.
So I’m not suggesting that we should stop giving to charities – far from it. When we see people hungry and homeless it is natural that our hearts should go out to them and want to help – and as I said last week, please make that help to www.helpthehomeless.co.uk and not in cash to feed someone’s drink or drug habit. On Wednesday I shall be making supper for the men staying at the Tiffers Bus Shelter and will spend the evening with them, chatting about their circumstances, how they got into their present situation and what their hopes are for the future. And my January donation will be to Tiffers to help them continue with their project.
But if we care about the homeless and the hungry, our first priority must surely be to ask “Why” – why are people homeless and hungry? People need justice, they need a home, they need a job with a decent wage if they are capable of working or financial support if they are not. Cuts to funding and deliberate blocks to Ipswich Borough Council’s house-building programme are political decisions which can be reversed if enough people get angry enough about them. Cuts to our social services and our education and our police forces can be addressed by our local councils to a certain extent – we need to decide that we are willing to pay for these things, and I note that the County and the Police and Crime Commissioner are now talking about increasing Council Tax to pay for them. I still believe that the County Council could easily spend a significant part of its £125 million reserves, far more than the nominal scratch to the surface that the Conservative Leader of the Council is proposing. But I would just urge you to remember who it was who suggested we couldn’t afford to raise Council Tax in the run-up to the County Council elections this year – and is now happy to propose we do so once he has been re-elected.
There will always be a place for charity. But how much better it would be if society enabled people to look after themselves and each other better in the first place.