Disestablishmentarianism

A poll of Evangelicals at the last general election revealed that the developing world was at the to

A couple of weeks ago I bumped into a theologian who had just heard me on the radio debating the disestablishment of the Church of England with the Bishop of Liverpool.

To my surprise she told me that the discussion had changed her position. She now supported a separation of church and state. But before I became too caught up in illusions of my own debating prowess, she quickly added that it was the bishop’s lack of any credible argument which had finally persuaded her.

Her view is one that seems to be growing amongst many Christians. In the past it has been proposed that disestablishment would condemn Christianity to the private realm. More are now realising that it needn’t signal the end of the church’s engagement in public life.

An analysis at the composition of the House of Commons reveals that MPs who align themselves with the Christian groupings within the three main parties (the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement and the Lib Dem Christian Forum) make up around 15% of the House of Commons. Christians who have pursued more democratic routes are disproportionately overrepresented when compared to the church-going population at large.

Outside Parliament too, one of the paradoxes of the last thirty years has been that whilst church attendance has declined, the number of Christian campaign groups has increased exponentially. The end of Christendom appears to be the catalyst for growth in political Christianity.

The reasons for the political engagement vary. For some it is the fear that the culture is becoming ‘de-Christianised’. Often taking on a more conservative or right wing character, these Christians, like their brothers and sisters in the US, tend to focus on issues of sexuality, marriage and abortion – lamenting the supposed decline in Christian morality. From the campaigns of Mary Whitehouse to the opposition to Jerry Springer: The Opera, the groups hit the headlines because of their censorious or reactionary approaches.

But others are experiencing a more positive radicalisation. Finding themselves freed from Christianity’s previous alignment with culture and the social order, they are far more willing to point to injustices in the world around them, and campaign for positive change. Whether it be as part of the Fairtrade movement, the Jubilee 2000 coalition that led to the MakePovertyHistory campaign, the opposition to the invasion of Iraq, initiatives for the rights of asylum seekers or new approaches to criminal justice, their agenda is broad and widening.

And it is this latter movement which appears to be winning the hearts and minds of the churches. A poll of Evangelicals at the last general election revealed that the developing world was at the top of their political priorities, rather than any obsession with sex – a healthy departure many inside and outside the church would observe. Of course it will take time for their new political perspectives to mature. Old habits die hard. But like it or loathe it, Christian involvement in public life seems here to stay – regardless of what happens to the loosening ties that still bind church and state.

Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green party. He was formerly the co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia. 

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.