The church in the crunch

Following huge losses during the financial crisis, the Church of England should return to the Christ

No-one is immune from the global economic crunch. That includes the Church of England, which has £5 billion tied up in assets, pensions and buildings. When the archbishops of Canterbury and York started to sermonise on short-term greed and the failures of market, they were embarrassed to discover that the Church had been playing the system in pretty much the same way as everyone else.

Initially, things looked good. Due to its share holdings, England’s Established Church gained hugely from rising oil, gold and copper prices, driven at least in part by speculators. In 2006-7 the Church Commissioners, accountable to parliament, set up a currency-hedging programme, in effect short-selling sterling to guard against rises in other currencies. The C of E invested £13 million in Man Group, the largest listed hedge fund manager. It also has a stock lending programme through JP Morgan Chase and has traded debts, in spite of the Archbishop of Canterbury's criticism of doing so exclusively for profit. The Church sold a £135 million mortgage portfolio last year.

Then things went pear-shaped. A week ago the Man Group was down 30 per cent in early trading after its profits slumped, potentially wiping £4 million off the value of the Church's holdings. The Commissioners have announced an average return on investments of almost 10 per cent a year over the last ten years. But most of these are in property and equities, which have taken a hammering as markets have fallen; so future prospects are not rosy. Exposure in banking (HSBC, TSB, RBS, and HSBOS, which has fallen a staggering 90 per cent) and mining (in defiance of ethical advice) is also costing the C of E dear.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The founder of Christianity once pointed out that “where your treasure is, there is your heart also”. Now is the right time for the Church of England to completely re-examine its asset and investment policies and to put its money where its message is. Given the performance of more ethical funds, that would also be a prudent move.

Many church groups are involved in alternative economic practices – co-ops, credit unions, ethical investment, fairer trade, local exchange schemes, micro credit, small loans for development, initiatives for monetary reform and more. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have a history of critiquing usury, unjust profit from interest, and Jews and Muslims have set up non-interest based lending institutions.

Globally, churches have an opportunity to use their assets in new and creative ways, for economic change driven by human need rather than by greed. What is needed is the will. The earliest Christian communities were founded on principles of seeking to use material wealth for the common good, striving for equality and giving priority to the poorest. Today’s churches struggle to be so Christian, it seems. But as neo-liberal ideology quakes before stark reality, the wages of economic spin are proving deadly rather than ‘realistic’.

Simon Barrow is co-director of the religion and society think tank Ekklesia. He is author of ‘An economy worth believing in’.

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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.