ACEVO Lunch: Birmingham 24 July 2014
The Role of Social Leaders in Challenging Poverty and
building Stronger Communities
Ladies and Gentlemen, members of ACEVO: I’m delighted
to have been asked to join you today and I want to welcome you to
Birmingham. My particular thanks to Sir Stephen Bubb for inviting me to
this event. We have known each other for a very long time - since our
university days together in Oxford in the mid-1970’s, when we would
occasionally debate together at the Oxford Union Society.
Those of us who live and work here in Birmingham have no
hesitation in describing it as a great city – but a city many of whose citizens
are often unduly modest about its achievements, its environment and the
opportunities that it has to offer.
It is also, as you will know, a multi-cultural city and one
that is blessed with the lively presence of many different faith
communities. These are naturally focussed on the worship of God and the
practice of religion and at the heart of that religious practice is a profound
concern that arises from their foundation in faith to find effective and
collaborative ways of reaching out to the society in which we are at home and
of serving those who are most needy and facing the great challenges in the
The leaders of the main faith communities meet regularly
together and have done ever since the Birmingham Faith Leaders Group was
founded soon after the event of 9/11. Last week I chaired our last
meeting at the Central Mosque alongside Bishop David Urquhart, the Bishop of
Birmingham, and the leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh
communities of the city. In solidarity with our Muslim neighbours at a
particularly difficult time, when the various Trojan Horse reports are being
published, we stayed late into the evening to be with the local Muslim
community at their Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan.
Our group is currently considering the possibility of making
a Covenant with Birmingham City Council and we have been encouraged in this by
the All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society. The Covenant
would be a joint commitment between our faith communities and the local
authority to a set of principles that would guide our engagement together,
aiming to remove some of the mistrust that can exist and promoting open,
practical working on all levels.
In the Covenant the local authority will be asked to commit
itself to welcome the involvement of faith communities in the delivery of
services and social action on an equal basis with other groups. The
faith-based organisations in their turn will be asked to commit themselves to
work actively with the local authority in the design and delivery of services
to the public. We still have some way to go before this is launched but
we hope to agree the Covenant this autumn.
In this context I wish to refer to the New Testament
Christian Scriptures for some inspiring words to carry my theme forward.
I want to put before you the advice of Jesus in St Mathew’s Gospel to his
disciples. Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth where moths
and woodworm destroy them and thieves can break in and steal them. But store up
treasures for yourself in Heaven. ( Matt.6.19)
Speaking from within the Catholic Church, we do challenge
the government over ensuring that those not able through disability or
unemployment to earn a living have benefits to cover life’s basic necessities –
that was the whole basis of the welfare state of which our country should
rightly be proud.
On behalf of the Roman Catholic Church much of this
challenging is carried out publicly by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, my predecessor
as Archbishop of Birmingham. As the President of the Bishops’ Conference
of England and Wales his office has a high profile, and he is supported in this
role by CSAN or Caritas Social Action Network, the umbrella body of the network
of Catholic Agencies, many of which are involved in direct delivery of Social
Care. These Agencies meet regularly and feed their experiences on the
ground into the lobbying and challenging carried out by the Church.
And there is much to challenge in both national and local
government policy, not only at the level of benefits and the criteria governing
them, but also in the price paid for contracted services to the private and
voluntary sector organisations. The present tough commissioning regime
means that the wages of many carers are depressed, often to the minimum wage
with few benefits beyond those statutorily required. (This matter was
raised by Archbishop Sentamu in his report on the Living Wage on 24th June).
The Bishop’s Conference endorses the Living Wage and has requested that
all Catholic Agencies seek to create a plan to having the Living Wage as the
minimum wage in their organisation.
In our own diocesan agency, Father Hudson’s Society, they
are grappling with the issue of how to move carers in residential care for
frail elderly and those with dementia up to the Living Wage, and at the same
time how to make the quality care offered in a modern, purpose-designed
building affordable to those of low income and with no capital. It is an
intractable problem but, as recent scandals in care homes have shown , there
has to be an adequate number of good, motivated, properly trained and
properly supervised staff to provide real care for very vulnerable old people.
Poverty goes far beyond lack of material wealth. We
can speak of poverty as a deficiency of necessary or desirable ingredients.
The necessary and desirable ingredients of life go beyond material
possessions, although of course the basic material necessities -
food, a roof over one’s head, clothes etc. are being met by many
faith-based organisations – foodbanks, night shelters, through the distribution
of clothing parcels. But what of the other necessities and desirable
ingredients of life: being loved and cared about, a sense of belonging and of
community? Poverty includes isolation, loneliness, fear in one’s environment,
being deprived of opportunities and lacking a voice.
Faith Communities have long worked for the relief of poverty
and while we recognise that the State has assumed many of the roles previously
undertaken by faith-based charities, there is also recognition both within the
Faith Communities and within Government that the State can only do so
much. Some would maintain that it is not healthy for the State to try to
do too much. Hence the Big Society plan of the Conservative Party to
encourage communities to come together to address their problems locally.
The Church supports that concept and has, even before the Big
Society, been encouraging this collaborative approach. At this point, by
way of illustration, I would like to offer some examples from within my own
Archdiocese, knowing that these can be matched by many other examples within
the different faith communities of this city:
New Heights Community Project is based around the Catholic
Church of Christ the King in Kingstanding. This was set up by the then Parish
Priest, Fr Michael White (now engaged in establishing the Heart of Tamworth
project in Staffordshire) and a committed group of volunteers to provide
activities, advice and education for people from the local community of all
ages. It has grown and grown, out-growing its original premises, expanding into
new extensions and it is now a key part of the community in Kingstanding.
Along the way it has won:
Community Engagement of the Decade in the West Midlands from RegenWM in 2010
Impact Award for Long-term Enterprises awarded by DSC
Minister’s Big Society Award
Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service
In Wolverhampton, the Hope Family Project has been based on
the Heath Town Estate, searching out those behind locked doors, too afraid to
come out, for over 25 years. Originally known as Hope Community it has
been the one constant on that estate, where everything else has come and gone –
school, crèche, community centre, shops, estate management board. Now it
too is under threat as its premises are due for demolition, but it has been
offered a couple of flats to work from, which would take it back to its
origins, when a group of Religious Sisters started the work from a deck-access
flat on the estate.
In Maryvale, near Kingstanding, a parish-based charity
provides regular social gatherings, lunches and trips for older people from the
wider community and for adults with disabilities. In many parishes there are
less formal arrangements to provide social gatherings for the older members of
the church community and for those who are housebound.
In Smethwick, Brushstrokes project has earned a well-founded
reputation for its work with refugees and asylum seekers arriving in this
country with nothing. It has helped them to learn the language, find
housing, offered advice services and most importantly offered the hand of
And here in Birmingham, St Chad’s Sanctuary, a collaboration
between St Chad’s Cathedral and the Salvation Army, is extending the hand of
friendship to refugees in the city centre, offering help with material needs,
with clothing and food as well as training opportunities.
Along with our professional social care agency, Father
Hudson’s Society, who have a degree of involvement in all these projects, we
have been researching into Catholic Church-based social care across our
Archdiocese. Often the work is in collaboration with other Christian
denominations and sometimes other faith communities or voluntary agencies and
we have so far identified over 600 individual projects working to relieve
poverty in its broadest sense and building better and stronger communities,
with over 3000 volunteers and over 300 paid staff.
Since these statistics come from just within one
denominational community I leave you to imagine and quantify the broader
picture which has yet to be fully assessed and presented.
Archbishop of Birmingham