Quakers for prison reform

Their belief in equality and justice, and a history of being jailed for their faith, have inspired Q

Quakers (members of the Religious Society of Friends) are usually more concerned with living out their faith in their lives than with defining their faith. Our simple style of worship, based in silence, often provides the spiritual grounding for our efforts to make the world a better place, which in turn enriches our worship.

We have what we call Testimonies – I think of them as signposts or touchstones – which provide us with guidance in the large and small decisions of life. They can be summarised as Peace, Simplicity, Integrity and Equality. Out of our testimony to equality and justice have sprung such varied activities as campaigning to abolish slavery, providing good conditions for employees, choosing Fairtrade products, addressing racism and sexism within and beyond our own community and helping to set up Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group.

We also have a long tradition of working to improve the criminal justice system, specifically prison conditions. This goes back to our origins during the turbulent times of the seventeenth century, when many Quakers were thrown into the appalling prisons of the time for holding illegal meetings for worship. If you look very closely at a five pound note featuring Elizabeth Fry, you will see not only the portrait of a determined woman, but also a picture of her sitting in Newgate prison in 1823, reading from the Bible, with the light streaming in symbolically. On the left are members of the Ladies Committee she created, on the right the imprisoned women and children.

More recently, Quakers have been working on policy regarding the children of imprisoned mothers – when is it best for the baby or child to be with its mother, even in prison, and when is it harmful? Should childcare responsibilities be taken into account when offenders are sentenced? Quaker reports have been welcomed and considered by UN agencies.

Meanwhile, Quakers go on visiting prisoners and supporting moves to adopt restorative processes. Restorative justice aims, as much as possible, to heal the harm done by crime and look towards a better future. It usually does this by practical processes which bring together and consider the needs of the offender, victim and community.

This fits closely with Quaker approaches to justice in the wider sense too - every individual is unique, precious, a child of God, and therefore should be valued and treated with respect in all situations.

Helen Drewery is the assistant general secretary for Quaker Peace and Social Witness.
Getty
Show Hide image

Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.