Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Opportunity Costs of Bad Government

BFTF actually has another blog, which can be found at www.nottinghamscience.blogspot.com and is called the Nottingham Science Blog (or NSB for short).

NSB aims to summarise many of the wonderful sciency public lectures that are given at the University of Nottingham, Cafe Sci or Trent University, as well as reporting on events such as the University of Nottingham's "May Fest" where Nottingham is invited to come along see a wonderful display of hands-on activities, talks, and displays that explain what the researchers at the University are up to. It is a great day out.

And then there are British Association of Science events such as "Science in the Park" at Wollaton Hall, where, again, adults and children alike can interact with researchers to understand what they are doing.

Meanwhile, BFTF also occasionally interviews researchers and posts transcripts of the, invariably interesting, stuff they said.

BFTF loves, really loves, writing the NSB. There isn't, so far as BFTF is aware, anything else like it in Nottingham.

The UK aspires to be a knowledge economy. One would hope that a blog like NSB would be a help, in some small way, of moving towards that goal, of encouraging people to love science and to showcase at least some of the great sciency stuff that happens in Nottingham.

The Nottingham Science Blog

But if you look carefully at the stats you will see that hardly anything has been written since May 2013. Now from May to September, BFTF was on the mother of all fitness drives, hence no output during that time. But what about the three months since? Why isn't there much stuff from Sep-Dec13?

It's not like there is a shortage of material, BFTF has jotters full of scribbled notes from lectures that need to be converted to posts. And there are plenty of hi-tech companies in the region who could be showcased on the blog.

So what gives?

The answer is that Bad Government gives.

Every moment that BFTF spends volunteering to mitigate the effects of bad government policy, or to stop bad policy being implemented, is a moment that could be more productively used elsewhere, such as helping the kids with their homework, writing stuff for the NSB, interviewing scientists, learning about the UK's energy policy, growing vegetables, and many other activities...

All these things are the opportunity cost of spending time volunteering on social issues. BFTF has no doubt it is the same for most volunteers. The loss that this represents to British Society in terms of advancing and developing must be staggering.

BFTF has spent a significant amount of time over the last three months helping with a foodbank. The government may think that Foodbanks are a great example of the "Big Society" but the reality is that they are ridiculously inefficient - ordinary working people get taxed and then with the little money they have left they buy food to give to foodbanks, and then Fooodbank volunteers, with the little time they have, arrange to give the food to those in need.

It's so inefficient as to be almost a sign of a dysfunctional society. And meanwhile the taxman and supermarkets take their cut along the way. Especially the taxman.

BFTF loves the NHS and it is consistently listed as one of the institutions that people value most. When the government does something stupid that threatens the NHS, BFTF is going to act. And again the result is that other, more productive things don't get done.

Benefit Changes
A major source of people being referred to foodbanks is the slowness of implementing benefit changes. The time and effort taken to challenge local councillors (who often do not respond initially) is time and effort that could be used more productively elsewhere.

Acting like Kim Jong-Un
Imagine my surprise when, in the same week as North Koreas leader Kim Jong-Un's freshly disgraced uncle was airbrushed out of a documentary, the Conservative government in the UK decided to purge 10 years (2000-2010) of speeches from their archive. It's almost as though they don't want the public to know what they promised the British public they would (or would not) do when in government.

It seems reasonable to challenge the government on why they are acting as though Soviet Russia was their role model, and this is something that will, again, mean that more productive things don't get done.

May 2014 : Tea Bags
Coming home after a fairly busy day at work, there were many things that BFTF wanted to be doing on the evening of May 1st 2014.

Writing up a report on a fascinating public lecture by a researcher on antibiotic resistance was high on the list, with the aim of making people aware of the great public lectures that are held in Nottingham....or helping No3 son practice his maths for the SATS exams that are looming, with the aim of helping him get the best marks possible...or preparing for a talk on trees in Nottingham to some kids at BMCC.

But instead of any of these productive activities, BFTF spent the time breaking down boxes of tea bags into sets of 20 and bagging them up to go into foodparcels at the Himmah Foodbank. Foodparcels that will go to local people who cannot afford to buy enough food to live on. The top three reason people are having to resort to using foodbanks, according to Trussell Trust analysis of their data are Benefit Delays(31%), Low Income(20%) and Benefit Changes(17%).

BFTF resented every minute spent packing those tea bags - because BFTF pays taxes SPECIFICALLY so that we can all live in a civilised country - one where the government uses those taxes to ensure that people have a safety net, one where people have the RIGHT to expect that, if they suddenly fall on hard times, the state will be there to give them a hand up.

BFTF, in short wants to live in country of fairness, compassion and justice, not a 60million person version of Lord of the Flies.

When the government FAILS TO DO ITS JOB, the opportunity costs, in terms of what citizens have to give up to fill in the resulting gaps, is shocking - and seems to be completely ignored by politicians.

And, just to be clear, all the other members of the Himmah Foodbank team were also unable to perform other, more productive activities because of the time that they were giving to paper over the cracks left by bad government. Time that they were spending in, for example, organising food collections, or delivering foodparcels, or liasing with referring agencies.

And the Himmah Foodbank is just one (and a relatively small one at that) of the many Foodbanks in Nottingham.

A bread basket full of 20-teabag-packs, for adding to foodparcels.
Why are ordinary citizens having to give up their time to do this?

UKIP and Refugees from Syria.

Sent this email to the Nottingham branch of UKIP (BFTF's first engagement with the party)


I note the Nigel Farange said on, or around, 29th Dec that :

"I think refugees are a very different thing to economic migration and I think this country should honour the 1951 declaration on refugee status that was agreed...But the original ideas of defining what a refugee is were good ones and I think, actually, there is a responsibility on all of us in the free West to try and help some of those people fleeing Syria, literally in fear of their lives."

And that, a day or two later, Mr Farange said :

“If we do not help these people then who will? We must as a nation help Christians who are fleeing Syria to escape death and torture by allowing some to come to the UK.”

My question is ask whether the latter comment replaces the former and, if not, how UKIP proposes to ensure that refugee status is not based on the faith of the applicant.

Update 21st Jan 2014:
Received the following from UKIP:
"It is not UKIP Policy that Syrian asylum seekers should be welcomed or turned away based entirely on religious faith. However, given that refugees are processed on need it is entirely appropriate that people fleeing religious persecution and civil war between religious factions in their home country have their religion taken into consideration. We believe It is common sense to do so..."

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Challenging Hasbro on the sustainability of card used in "Risk"

BFTF recently played the board game "Risk" for the first time recently...and got his ass whipped!

But it was good fun - after all, who doesn't like a bit of global domination of an evening - and BFTF was thinking about buying Risk for the BFTF family.

It costs, at the time of writing, around £25.

Clearly, the actual manufacturing cost for the board, case, cards etc is far, far below £25. And BFTF is cool with that - intellectual property and all that.

The point being that this is a very high margin product, presumably both for Argos and for the manufacturer, Hasbro (owner of Parker Games)

So you would think that Hasbro would be able to do the right thing and use sustainably sourced card for the game board, box, cards instructions etc.

As opposed to, you know, UNsustainably sourced card that might come from illegally logged tropical forests, or irresponsibly cleared forest that results in the loss of plant and animal ecosystems.

The company has an environmental policy, which can be found here.

However, right in the first sentence, the policy appears to have an articulated-lorry sized get out clause :

"Hasbro purchases paper from suppliers who practice sustainable forestry. Both of our owned and operated factories have achieved certification from recognized certifying bodies like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)."

"Like" the FSC??? BFTF is not aware of any other well known standard that is like the FSC.

Do they perhaps mean PEFC? (which is a much weaker standard) or ISO14001 (which does not mandate any particular level of sustainability at all)?

But Hasbro clearly understand that FSC is the gold standard, as this is the only certification that they refer to.

So BFTF send an email and a Tweet asking Hasbro to clarify.....

Update: 13 Jan 14:
Received the following encouraging response from Hasbro:

"The paper and board used in the risk game is mostly FSC certified. Our primary suppliers of paper and board are FSC certified but we also engage suppliers and materials that use other types of certification like PEFC. As you have seen on our website we have set ourselves a target of 90% usage of these materials and sources for all of paperboard packaging and in-box game content, by 2015. For the Risk game in particular we have probably achieved that goal already."

Hasbro use mostly sustainable FSC card for "Risk"!

Related Posts
Challenging Halfords on labour practices in the developing world
Sustainable paper at Orion Books
FSC at Random House
A message to WHSmith
Challenging FireAngel on sustainability

Friday, 27 December 2013

Mosque "Mums and Tots" group raises over £1000 for Save the Children

A Nottingham parent and toddler group recently raised over £1000 to support Save the Chilren's efforts in helping survivors of Typhoon Haiyan which has ravaged the Phillipines.

The coffee-morning event was organised by Saema Mohammad and the "Mums and Tots" group at the the Muslim Community and Cultural Centre, Wollaton, Nottingham on 6th December.

And the event was a hit with both the "Mum" and "Tot" demographics, with plenty of food (decribed by Saema as being "Nom nom yummilicous") as well as play and craft activities for the little ones.

Happy Mums! Happy Tots!

Saema commented that attendance was mostly non-Muslim in the morning, with the Muslim Mums arriving in the afternoon, after Friday prayers.

Once again, Imam Asif Ali absolutely nails the
"yoof" look with a long-sleeve / short-sleeve combo top.

Reflecting on the event, Saema commented that "it gives me an incalculable amounts of satisfaction to see the community coming together for a good cause. It really is amazing what we can achieve when we come together"

Ameen to that, Sister!

Update 29th Dec:
Emailed Imam Asif Ali and Sr Saema to say thank you for organising this event, which is heartwarming on so many differnt levels.

Asked Nottingham InterFaith Council to publicise the event as an example of how the Muslim community reaches out to wider society.

Related Links:
Mums and Tots raises over £500 for MacMillan Cancer Relief

You can contact the Mums and Tots group on their "Mums and Tots Wollaton" Facebook page or by emailing Saema on saemam@hotmail.co.uk

Image Sources:
Images by kind permission of the Wollaton Mums and Tots group.

Are you a "Type 1" or a "Type 2" person?

There are plenty of people out there in Nottinghams Muslim community who have tried to encourage their local mosque or community centre to set up programs or events relevant to second and third generation Muslims who have grown up in the UK.

In many cases, there people have been so traumatised by the experience that they have simply given up on being volunteers.

This post aims to look at the breadth of possibilities available to those who wish to make a positive difference to society, and is based on an exasperated comment from a former volunteer asking how to tackle the "local stubbornness and politics" that had hamstrung efforts they had made to organise events at their local masjid in the past.

1) Look into your heart
2) Tackling local stubbornness and politics
3) If at first you face defeat, try again...
4) ..then do something else, no point being a damn fool about things
5) Challenging National Organisations

1) Look into your heart...
Before getting into any detail, dear reader, it is probably a good idea to ask you to read the following two scenarios and look into your own heart to see whether you tend towards being a "Type 1" or a "Type 2" person...

Scenario A:
Imagine you have talked to your local Imam about an urgent social need (homework club for kids / high levels of poverty / need for a youth club / need for a Mums and Tots facility etc)and have offered to do all the legwork and set the event or facility up. All you need is the Mosques approval and support. The Mosque has point blank refused to recognise the issue as something that the Muslim community or the mosque need concern themselves with, or perhaps refused to recognise that the issue is even real.

Type 1 : You really want to do something practical so you keep talking to the mosque leadership periodically, or you ask others to join you in lobbying the mosque committee, or you scale down the project, or talk to a different mosque, or work with another community organisation, or work on a related topic that is acceptable to the mosque

Type 2 : You have been proven right in your view that all mosques are uninterested in acting on urgent social issues. You decide to give up trying to do anything practical and, instead, complain to your friends on Facebook and spend your time circulating conspiracy theory links.

Scenario B:
You are concerned that the US (the UK's closest military ally) has a policy of undertaking "double tap" aristrikes which kill innocent first responders and rescuers - something that is a war crime. You challenge the government on this but receive a poor response, which does not address the issue at all.

Type 1 : You remain concerned about what is being done in your name, and publicise the poor response you have received, or encourage others to challenge their MP, or ask for help from other organisations, or ask your mosque to campaign on the issue.

Type 2 : You have been proven right in your view that no governments or other state organisation will ever listen to anyone. You decide to give up trying to do anything practical and, instead, complain to your friends on Facebook and spend your time circulating conspiracy theory links.

If you are a "Type 1" kinda person then BFTF hopes there is something useful for you in this post

If you are a "Type 2" kinda person then, you may wish to ask yourself whether you are looking to make a difference or whether you are looking for an excuse NOT to make a differnence....

2) Tackling local stubbornness and politics
First thing to say here is that BFTF is a bit rubbish at doing this, being a bit too bolshie for his own good sometimes, and also suffering from a desire to punch people who put politics above doing good.

Fortunately, there are other people in Notingham who do not have these faults and are able to spend the time and effort that is required to build relationships, and hence trust - which can then be used to move community organisations forwards.

A beacon of good practice in this regard is CitizensUK, whose Nottingham presence (which has been eye-poppingly effective in achieving positive change for the city's most vulnerable citizens) had been mentioned in this blog on a number of occasions.

Everything that BFTF has learnt about community organising and overcoming politicla barriers and excuses has come from Citizens. BFTF urges you to have a read of at least some of the posts detailing Citizens work (here, here, here, here, and here.

Relatedly, a brilliant blog post by brand expert Jon Acuff lists the three steps required to get influential people to help you:

1. Be their friend.
2. Seriously, be their friend.
3. Have you been their friend yet? Quit wasting time. Be their friend.

3) If at first you face defeat, try again...
When faced with an organisation that ignores reasonable requests and seems uninterested in moving forwards, BFTF adopts a number of approaches. These may or may not be best practice, but they are what BFTF does:

i) Keep challenging the org every few weeks / months if they said they would do something but are failing to deliver.

ii) Keep a record of how hard it is to usefully engage with the org, perhaps on a blog post (but preferably without naming the org directly, as this is only going to get peoples back up) and send this link to the org to try and shame them into action.

iii) See if another org can help (e.g the Police Domesic Violence Unit for DV issues)

BFTF should probably be asking others to lobby the mosque concerned, but doesn't because BFTF does not want others to have a bad experience in community activism and then give up it entirely.

4) ..then do something else, no point being a damn fool about things
Having said the comments above, there are such things as dead horses that are not worth flogging. And in these cases it can be best to scale down ones expectations.

For example, when foodbanks first began to sprout up in Nottingham, BFTF was very keen that Mosques, and the Muslim community, should be supporting them, which resulted in the following train of events:

i)Engage with orgs representing Muslims in Nottingham as a whole
Problem: Muslim community leadership is dysfunctional, no meaningful orgs exist

ii) Engage with "Communities Group" of City Council who should have contacts with many mosques
Problem : Very poor experience with the Communities Group, unlikely that they will do anything useful in a timely manner.

iii) Engage with mosques across city directly
Problem : No relationship with many mosques, no time to build relationships with so many orgs, just turning up results in potential argument or stonewalling. BFTF recalls a mosque chairman refusing to believe that there was anyone in Nottingham not getting enough to eat. And also two mosques whose Imams/Chairmen said that they had people coming to them directly asking for food, when BFTF asked how they had responded they said, dismissively, that they had not given them anything (yes, of course, silly me for asking)

iv) Work with a few local moques that BFTF DOES have a relationship with
This action, much smaller in scope than originally intended, did actually work! BFTF was also working with Himmah at this point.

5) Challenging National Organisations
BFTF was recently talking to a very good hearted friend and suggesting to them that, even if they felt the government or organisations such as UN were untrustworthy (which is a very reasonable view to take!) that did not absolve one of the responsibility to try and encourage government and companies to do the right thing.

And it is also worth remembering that it was NATO and the UN (not any Muslim country) who stopped the bloodbath in the Balkans. And (at the time of writing) it is UN troops who are offering at least some protection to civilians in South Sudan

People can and do make a difference. You can see that difference at work right now in the way the political parties are fighting to get tough on immigration. In the past it was exactly this kind of action that got civil rights for blacks in the US and South Africa, the vote for women and many other things.

Ain't nothing gonna change unless people campaign for it!

Every one of the charities and NGO's that BFTF has interviewed has said that engaging and challenging companies or governments is something that people need to do. Here are just a few examples of how lobbying has resulted in positive change:

And even just one or two people REALLY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE, see here for info on how just two compliants got a MailOnline headline changed from "Devout Muslim" to the infinitely more accurate "Heroin Dealer": http://bftfblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/jubel-miah-is-no-devout-muslim.html#dec

Finally, in conclusion, its perhaps going back to the key question.

Are you a "Type 1" person?

Or a "Type 2" person?

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Islamic Christmas Presents

Mrs BFTF bought some Islamic Christmas presents for yours truly, with instructions to start using immediately.....

BFTF's Christmas Present

NB: For those who have undergone an operation to surgically remove their sense of humour, it perhaps needs to be mentioned that this is a jokey post, so calm down.

Related Links:
Positive Muslim Stories

Monday, 23 December 2013

Bad Behaviour in the Commons

The House of Commons recently held a debate on the rise in the number of Foodbanks. The debate was provoked by a Change.org petition calling on the House of Commons to debate hunger and the rise in Foodbanks. Incredibly, the petition managed to get over 100,000 signatures (the number required to get debated in Parliament) in just two days. As someone who is peripherally involved in Foodbanks, BFTF paid attention to the debate and has written a post with some of the comments made by MP's here.

This was not a debate on some arcane aspect of law. This was a debate demanded by the British public, on a topic of urgent humanitarian concern.

It was, in short, important - and people were watching.

So one would expect MP's to:
a) be present and
b) be on their best behaviour.

Neither of these things happened.

The Government side of the House in particular was very sparsely populated and some measure the behaviour of the MP's can be gained by the fact that Eleanor Laing the Deputy Speaker of the House, had to intervene some 14 times in the first hour of the debate alone, as shown below :

1) Order. I must warn hon. Members that if everybody takes four minutes, plus the time allowed for interventions, only about a third of those who wish to speak will be able to do so. One would hope that Members, out of consideration for others, might take less than four minutes where at all possible.

2) Order.

3) Order. The hon. Gentleman should make a brief intervention, but it must be heard by the House. He may now make his intervention, but briefly.

4) Order. I cannot hear the shadow Minister, but she is speaking perfectly clearly. There is too much noise in the Chamber. Members should have the courtesy to listen to the hon. Lady moving the motion

5) Order. I do not understand why there are conversations going on all around the Chamber. [Interruption.] I can see where they are taking place. If Members are here to take part in the debate, they must listen to the hon. Lady who is proposing the motion.

6) Order. This is not a football match. Do not shout at the Minister. She will give way when she is ready.

7) Order. There is no point in having a debate if nobody listens to the person who is speaking. Be quiet.

8) Order. There are too many people standing up. The Minister is not taking interventions at this point. Allow her to make her speech.

9) Order. We cannot hear the Minister.

10) Order. [Interruption.] Order. The House should pause for a moment, calm down and listen to the Minister. Everyone will have a turn to make their point in due course. [Interruption.] Order. I call the Minister.

11) Order. If hon. Members do not keep quiet and listen to the Minister, she will have to repeat her speech over and over again—[Interruption.] Order. If the House keeps interrupting me, I will call order again and again, and very few hon. Members will have the chance to make the speeches they have prepared. Let us have silence. I call the Minister.

12) Order. Members must not shout at the Minister. It is clear that she does not intend to give way, and she is not going to give way if you shout at her. Please be quiet, allow the Minister to finish her speech and then everyone will have a chance to make their contribution.

13) Order. The hon. Lady must be brief, but she must be heard.

14) Order. Hon. Members will allow the Minister to conclude her speech.

Interventions by the Deputy Speaker during
the first hour of the Foodbank Debate 18 Dec 2013

BFTF asked No3 Son (10yrs old) what he thought of the behaviour of the MP's and his comments were:

"Not a good example...worse than children...they should show respect to each other...Say "If I may" instead of shouting...Shouting is rude...by the look of their behaviour they shouldn't be running the country...they shouldn't say anything about children's behaviour until they have sorted out their own behaviour."
BFTF wonders whether MP's ever feel, frankly, ashamed at their behaviour in Parliament and poor impression it gives of their ability to run the country.

Commons attendance during the Foodbank Debate 18 Dec 2013

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Extracts from the Commons Food Bank Debate 18th Dec 2013

Hansard Transcript here.
Watch the Debate here.

The Motion
Initial Speech by Maria Eagle
Comments from Gov Benches
Effect of Benefit Changes and Sanctions
The Outcome of the Vote

The Motion:

"That this House notes that the number of people using foodbanks provided by the Trussell Trust alone has increased from 41,000 in 2010 to more than 500,000 since April this year, of whom one third were children; further notes that over the last three years prices have risen faster than wages; further notes the assessment of the Trussell Trust that the key factors in the rising resort to foodbanks are rising living costs and stagnant wages, as well as problems including delays to social security payments and the impact of the under-occupancy penalty; calls on the Government to publish the results of research into foodbanks commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which Ministers promised would be made public in the summer of 2013; and further calls on the Government to bring forward measures to reduce dependency on foodbanks, including a freeze on energy prices, a water affordability scheme, measures to end abuses of zero hours contracts, incentives to companies to pay a living wage and abolition of the under-occupancy penalty."
Initial Speech by Maria Eagle(Lab): Ministers [have been] repeatedly stressing that “food banks are absolutely not part of our welfare system...

The Government have tried to claim that the growth in food banks is a case of supply and demand. Lord Freud, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, suggested that the rise was down to people seeking out food because it was free. He said:“by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.” Yet everyone who receives food from a food bank is referred there by a front-line organisation and, therefore, verified as being in a crisis situation...

The Education Secretary has claimed that people are turning to food banks because “they are not best able to manage their finances.”How insulting, patronising and out of touch is that comment...

There is a very straightforward way for Ministers to clear up any doubt about the reasons for the increase in reliance on food aid: they can finally publish the official report into the growth of food banks, which was delivered to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in June. That report has now been sat on by Ministers for six months, longer than it took to produce...

Comments from the Government Benches
Esther McVey: Labour left the UK with the highest structural deficit of any major advanced country...

When the Labour councillor who had set up the Trussell Trust came for support and said, “Allow me to signpost food banks in Jobcentre Plus,” Labour said no. Labour wanted it to be their little secret because, beneath the veneer of what seemed like a sound economy, it was crumbling. It knew what was going to happen...

It is important to look at what is happening around the world. The UK has a population of 63 million and 60,000 people are visiting food banks according to the Trussell Trust. In Germany, however, with a population of 82 million, there are 1.5 million users of food banks. Canada has population of 35 million, and there are 830,000 monthly users of the Trussell Trust. We must put everything in context and look at what happened, whether that is the overspending and not being able to balance the books from 2002, or the financial crash of 2007.

Andrew Selous (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does she remember that the Trussell Trust thanked this Government for allowing jobcentres to refer people to food banks? That was a compassionate thing to do and the Labour party refused to do it.

Sir Tony Baldry (Con) : In its recent report on monitoring poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has observed:“Making comparisons of people using food banks over time is not easy, as there simply are more food banks now than five years ago. They may well be meeting need that was previously going unmet.” However, there is obviously a need to look at the impact of benefit changes and, in particular, benefit delays.

John Glen (con): ...I am not trying to deny the scale of food bank use. If Labour Members would stop trying to make political points, that would be helpful.The important issue is getting to the bottom of why so many people are using food banks. The Trussell Trust says that this is about not only homelessness, benefit delay, low income and changes to benefits, but domestic violence, sickness, refused short-term benefit advances, debt and unemployment...But what I find lacking in this debate is a serious estimation of what alternative measures could be put in place; all I have heard is, “Remove the sanctions regime. Give more money.” Where is that money going to come from? How will the incentive effect... ....We should not tritely simplify the matter and say, “It is all about the benefit changes and the Government must do something, but by the way I will not specify what we would do as an alternative, how much it would cost and how we would pay for it and in what time scale.” Unless alternative policies are advanced, the things that some Members are saying ring very shallow for everyone involved in food banks....

Effect of Benefit Changes and Sanctions:
Stephen Mosley (Con): ...Figures from my local food bank show that 59% of those who have used the food bank since April have visited because of changes to benefits and a growing number of people are visiting because of sanctions.

Ian Murray (Lab): The hon. Gentleman mentions his food bank. The food bank in my constituency, run in a joint venture by the Trussell Trust and Blythswood Care, has seen a six times increase in the number of people using it this year alone, mainly due to benefit changes.

Sir Tony Baldry (Con):...In April, an online survey was sent to 3,000 Church of England incumbents. In that survey, the Church Urban Fund asked clergy in parishes right across the country questions about their perceptions of food poverty and what was going on in their parishes. The respondents were invited to indicate what they considered the causes of food poverty, based on their experience of running food banks. These figures come to more than 100% because some clergy selected more than one topic, but 62% chose low income, 42% chose benefit changes and 35% chose benefit delays. It is also worth noting that some respondents believed that individual behaviour was a contributing factor, with 27% selecting poor household budgeting as a significant cause of food poverty.

Hywel Williams (PC): Significantly, about 20% of the people who go to food banks are the working poor. They are not the scroungers and shirkers who are cited so enthusiastically by some hon. Members and by the popular newspapers

Alison McGovern (Lab):...According to volunteers at the food bank in my constituency, they have been told that the need for food banks has been caused by the move from benefits to work. People’s weekly benefits stop and their pay cheques come at the end of the month, which is too far away.

Dame Anne Begg(Lab): ...Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty thought the situation serious enough to encourage their supporters to lobby their MPs and ask them to lobby the Work and Pensions Committee to look into the link between the increase in the use of food banks and the increase in the use of sanctions, as well as the increase in long delays and mistakes in benefit payments by Jobcentre Plus...

The belief that much of the problem is caused by errors in benefit payments is shared by Citizens Advice Scotland, which reports that 73% of the people using food banks cite problems with their welfare payments, that 30% are experiencing delays in getting the payment to which they are entitled, and that 22% are the subject of jobseeker’s allowance sanctions. However, people who have been sanctioned make up less than a quarter of those who are using food banks. All too commonly, people are using them because they have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. People are still falling ill and losing their jobs as a result, only to face a long delay in getting any benefit. Those delays have got worse in recent years. It also seems to be taking longer and longer to get benefits reinstated once they have been stopped, even by accident. Cuts are also being made to the benefits that people get, including the most pernicious of all—the bedroom tax—and this is all before the largest change of all, universal credit, has been introduced. So things could get worse.

Mr Godsiff (Lab): ...At the end of the day, lives will be scarred by the humiliation of forcing people into food banks—not just the lives of those individuals, but the lives of their children, too. Whatever the Government say, their MPs should be ashamed of that.

Rachel Reeves (Lab): ...The basic need for housing should be met by our wages or by a social safety net when it is needed. The basic need to be able to heat one’s home and turn on the lights should be met by having a decent wage or a social safety net when it is needed.

Sheila Gilmore (Lab): ... When I went to my local church-run food bank, I found that the people there were not political; the one thing they wanted to tell me was how shocked they were that so many of the people coming to them were suffering from sanctions—and sanctions not as a last resort but as a first resort.

Jessica Morden (Lab): I was e-mailed last Friday by a woman in my constituency who asked me to attend this debate. She said: “... At the beginning of this year, the DWP sanctioned me for six months due to an administrative error, which I did not ever receive a written apology for. I had to live on £27 a week for six months until my support worker found out and helped to get me back on my feet. I am not a waster or a shirker but having to receive food parcels because you have nothing in your cupboards is embarrassing for anyone. I also know people who work as hard as they can but because of low wages can’t manage.”

Hywel Williams (PC): ....A man came to see me on Monday who had been sanctioned and had no money. He had been called for an interview, but was not able to go because he had to take his seriously ill wife to hospital for cancer treatment. He could not be 30 miles away at the same time.

Catherine McKinnell (Lab): My constituency office took a phone call from an ex-serviceman yesterday who is now thankfully in receipt of a war pension, disability living allowance and employment and support allowance. However, while he was waiting for four weeks for Atos to deal with his appeal, he had to use a food bank. Does the Minister agree that that is an absolute disgrace?

Fiona Mactaggart (Lab): ...poor people in Slough are now fighting each other in the local Tesco when discount vegetables and fruit come out. A constituent texted me yesterday to say that he observed such fights on three separate occasions and that Tesco now has to put on security to deal with the issue. Is that not shocking in the 21st century?

The Outcome of the Vote:
Ayes 251, Noes 294.

In Nottinghamshire this translated to the following :

Vernon Coaker, Gedling
Gloria De Piero, Ashfield
John Mann, Bassetlaw
Alan Meale, Mansfield
Chris Leslie, Nottingham East
Graham Allen, Nottingham North
Lilian Greenwood, Notingham South

Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke QC, Rushcliffe
Anna Soubry, Broxtowe
Mark Spencer, Sherwood

No information
Not sure how Patrick Mercer OBE, Newark voted


Emailed local Conservative party asking when report detailing the research into foodbanks commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be published.

Easy Risotto with a Robust Italian Mafia protection

Okay, boys, Vinnie here. I've been asked by, well lets just say by a "friend of mine", to give you a example of some fine Italian cooking.

Now I know that many of your folks don't live at home with Mama, and have to cook dinner yourself, so I'm gonna make it real simple for you with this Easy Risotto Dish.

I learnt this recipe when I was in the joint with Jonny "Two Sandwiches" Millano, so called because he was "two sandwiches" short of a picnic, as you Brits say. Sheesh, that guy thought that "The Sopranos" was a distance learning course.

But Jonny's father was the big boss Tommy "Look at me wrong and I'll kill you" Millano so we had no choice but to give the kid some respect. What can I say, even in the family, sometimes it's all politics...

Anyways, this dish was something we could knock up in the short time we weren't in solitary confinement, so it should be just right for you busy people.

Easy Risotto with Fish and Peas

300g Risotto Rice
1 litre hot vegetable stock
Tinned oily fish (anchovies/sardines etc)
Peas (optional) One onion
Salt, pepper, oil

NB: For some reason, the family always gets a bad rap in the press. And when we try "explain" things to the journalists concerned, they just split town and are replaced by newbies who have all these misunderstandings about us. Y'know, we're people with feelings too, and we get this whole "sustainable fish" thing. Old Sal "When I were a lad" Jalfrezi has stopped using dynamite when he goes fishing and boss Millano even had a fundraiser for Greenpeace. Okay so he had it on his yacht during a marlin fishing expedition, buy hey, stop breaking his balls, the guy was trying to do the right thing!.

So, anyway, you just need to know that while Sardines are not an overfished species, many other species are and you should look for the MSC logo when buying Tuna, Cod, Mackeral etc.

a) Fry the onions in a little oil until brown.
b) While onions are frying, boil the peas (in a separate pan, you muppet).
c) Add the fish to the oinons and fry for a couple more minutes
d) Add the stock and rice to the onions.
e) Simmer for 20-30mins, stirring occasionally.
f) Add the peas and stir in

And there you go, badda bing, badda boom! A meal for 4-5 people in just 30minutes.

What's not to like?

My friend tells me that this dish rates as "EASY" on the BFTF Washing Up Index, which has gotta be a good thing right?

There's some other recipes here but I don't see anything Italian so may be best to stay clear.

And remember, you have any problems with stores being out of ingredients, you just give me a call. I gotta good friend called "Louisville Slugger" and a whole freezer full of horses heads. . .

Easy Risotto

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Interview : Dr Saqib from Akhuwat

BFTF had the chance to interview Dr. Muhammad Amjad Saqib(founder of the social action charity Akhuwat) on Radio Dawn 107.9FM recently to talk about Akhuwats innovative interest-free microfinance project which has disbursed some 370,000 loans throughout Pakistan.

4 Key Principles of Akhuwat
Akhuwat in Pakistan
Akhuwat in the UK
Best Thing About the UK

4 Key Principles of Akhuwat
Dr Saqib began by outlining the four key principles of the Akhuwat microfinance programme:

1) Interest free loans to the economically poor so that they may acquire a sustainable livelihood: Once approved and assessed for viability, business plan loans are given to the economically disadvantaged as interest-free loans.

2) Use of mosques and churches, as centers : Working with local mosque and church infrastructure reduces costs, builds bridges with communities and provides a venue for training and outreach – with the church / mosque leaders often being Akhuwats biggest cheerleaders

3)A spirit of volunteerism : By fostering a spirit of volunteerism, Akhuwat strives to mobilize all members of the society to play their part in poverty alleviation.

4) Borrowers becoming donors : The Member Donation Program allows people who have received loans in the past to become, if they wish, donors helping others.

Akhuwat in Pakistan
Dr Saqib commented on how there had been many struggles to get the programme started, from a lack of capital (just £100), to getting sufficient people involved to getting mosques on board.

Imams were initially reluctant to get involved, and only really opened up when Akhuwat managed to get across the message that they were not a sectarian organisation, and that mosques had historically had the role of being meeting places where social work could be undertaken.

BFTF asked how the organisation covered the costs of administration and the effects of inflation. Dr Saqib responded by explaining that the organisation was very open with donors, and would tell them that if they gave 100rupees, 9 would go on admin etc and the rest would be disbursed. Eventually that 91 rupees would be repaid, of which 82 would be given out as a loan. When that 82 rupees came back, 73rupees would be given out again – so that the original donations of 100rupees actually became several hundred rupees worth or loans !

Dr Saqib also pointed out that the four key principles of Akhuwat meant that the organisation had costs of around 9% compared to over 20% for interest based microfinance organisations

Akhuwat is much more than just a loan distribution company. It also has a very strong social programme that works to pass on positive messages relating to ethical values, care for the environment, ethical values, participation in civil society and the value of education (especially for girls) – as well as providing career advice to the children of the loan recipients Dr Saqib explained that "poverty is not only financial – poverty is also social, poverty is also political poverty is also spiritual, it is also moral. Poverty has many dimensions …so this the reason we also give them a social agenda".

This is why mosques are important – they are a place to sit and engage in this dialogue

Akhuwat in the UK
The organisation has set up a base in the UK, and Dr Saquib suggested that any mosque in the UK that could identify some entrepreneurs, and had some members of the congregation willing to act as donors – then they could also replicate the Akhuwat model and help people take their first steps in business, hopefully to repay their loans so that more people can be helped out of poverty. Dr Saqib explained that Akhuwat had set up a number of management systems to help run such a scheme and were more than happy to share this information.

So the ball, as is often the case, is in the court of the UK masajid!

BFTF asked Dr Saqib, who had been the key influences in his life, who had been the people who had put him on this path.

He replied that it was difficult to name all the key influences, as every day seemed to bring a new teacher. Indeed, some of the most powerful teachers were the recipients of the loans, as they provided great examples of how people could create a life for themselves and haul themselves out of poverty despite many adversities.

Having said that Dr Saqib said that his mother had been an important influence and had taught him Dr Saqib to never indulge in anything illegal or immoral and always tell the truth

The Best Thing About the UK
Something that is asked of all guests on the BFTF radio show is what they think is the best thing about the UK. Dr Saqibs response to this question was:

"People are extremely hard working, something that we as a nation in Pakistan lack, we don't work hard. Also people are very, very honest, they don’t cheat anybody. I think these are two extremely important values.

This message I am taking from your country to Pakistan, to tell people that if you want to make a mark for yourself you must work hard and be honest with yourself and with others."

Sunday textile market on the sidewalks of Karachi, Pakistan

Image Source:Wikipedia

Friday, 13 December 2013

"The Gagging Bill"

A lot of talk recently about "The Gagging Bill", but BFTF has had to look pretty hard to find out exactly what all the fuss is about.

Fortunately, the Civil Society Commission has been set up to provide an insight into the legislation (formally known as "Part 2 of the Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill") and its likely effects on the charitable and campaigning sector. The commission has been set up with the support of of over 50 prominent charities, campaign groups, community groups, academics, think tanks and online networks - and has produced a number of reports, under severe time pressure.

First Commission Report (Oct 13)
Second Commission Report (Dec 13) and recommendations
Examples of how the work of charities could be affected
Latest Update

First Commission Report (Oct 13)
The first report sets the scene by saying:
" It is hard to think of another issue that could unite the Countryside Alliance to the Lancashire Badger Trust, the Christian Institute to the National Secular Society, but such is the concern about Part 2 of the Lobbying Bill a remarkable unanimity has been achieved.

It is a mark of bad governance for legislation to be bounced on Parliament and those directly affected without any consultation. When matters of democracy are at stake it is a very grave error. There is no doubt, from the evidence that this Commission has gathered, that Part 2 of the Lobbying Bill risks profoundly undermining the very fabric of our democracy by significantly limiting the right of organisations – from charities and community groups to think tanks and blog sites – to speak out on some of the most important issues facing this country and the planet. Whether we agree with these organisations or not, their role is essential in order to have an informed, engaged electorate."

The Commission recognises that appropriate legislation of non-party campaigning is needed to prevent influence being gained through excessive spending or through political parties pretending to be NGO's.

The Charity Commission guidance for charities on how they should work during lections is admirably clear and states:
“A charity’s policy position on a particular issue may coincide with, or be more or less similar to, that of one of the political parties. In this case it is entirely acceptable for the charity to continue to campaign on that issue and to advocate its policy as long as it makes clear its independence from any political party advocating the same policy and does nothing to encourage support for any political party”

Clauses in the relevant current (PPERA) legislation place additional constrains on the activities of charities, but allowed enough latitude for most groups to campaign without any fundamental problem emerging

The provisions in the proposed (Part 2 of the Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill) legislation significantly extend these restrictions, making it difficult for civil society to have an effective voice in the lead up to an election. As the commission says :
"The consequence of these sub-clauses is that almost anything a charity or campaigning group does in relation to advocating policies in the year before an election can be considered from the point of view of its effect on the possible success or failure of particular parties or candidates. The result is a fundamental uncertainty, which can inhibit charities from campaigning for fear of breaking the law."

Second Commission Report (Dec 13) and recommendations
The Second Report makes a series of recommendation after some consulation with NGO groups. The very tight timetable imposed on the process meant that this consultation was not as complete as it could have been. Nevertheless, the commission was able to state a number of recommendations, starting with this key overall recommendation:
"The PPERA[existing] definition, as amended by the Lobbying Bill, should be used for the 2015 General Election; but this recommendation is entirely contingent on the Lobbying Bill being amended to implement this report’s other recommendations on: registration thresholds, spending limits, constituency cap, the definition of an organisation’s supporters, and the range of campaigning materials and activities subject to regulation and staff costs."

These other recommendations are shown below:
Campaigning materials and activities subject to regulation
The wider range of campaigning activities set out in Schedule 3 of the Bill should remain but be subject to two amendments to secure alignment with the regime for political parties. First, staff costs should be specifically excluded. Second, market research and canvassing should be covered only where this relates to ascertaining polling intentions.

Registration thresholds
Registration thresholds should be increased to £20,000 in England and £10,000 in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

Spending limits
Spending limits for non-party campaigning organisations should be increased to reflect the 2013 value of the limits within PPERA (i.e. PPERA limits plus inflation).

Constituency limits
Remove constituency spending limits for non-party campaigning proposed in the Lobbying Bill.

Reporting Requirements
All additional reporting requirements for non-party campaigning proposed in the Lobbying Bill should be removed.
Introduce the option of a declaration by non-party campaigns that have registered that they did not spend above the threshold. See below recommendation to reduce the regulatory burden on coalition campaigning

Coalition campaigning
Where an organisation only takes part in regulated activity as part of a single coalition, it will not have to register separately with the Electoral Commission, provided that all its relevant spending does not exceed the registration threshold and is reported through either the coalition or one of the coalition partners.

Regulation of non-party campaigning in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
Increase thresholds for registration in all three regions to £10,000 and exempt costs relating to translation, security and safety from regulation.

Duration of the regulatory period
Reduce the regulatory period to six months before the poll.

Exclude communications between non-party organisations and their supporters from activities related to ‘the public’ in the list of regulated activities. The definition of supporters should include people who have given specific consent to contact from the non-party campaigner in accordance with the Data Protection Act.

Charities and non-party campaigning
Charities should not be exempted from regulation of nonparty campaigning.

Equalities and Human Rights
Exempt from regulated spending costs associated with a)Translation to any language; b)Making documents accessible to people with physical or learning disabilities.

The first report by the commission contains a number of testimonies from charities and campaign groups, explaining how the proposed legislation would severly affect their ability to function:
“We believe that it would be perverse to reduce the spending limits and registration threshold in light of the increased number of regulated activities.” Scope,

“Given the fact that what we do is ‘encourage our members to participate in public life’, and that most of our campaigns are on issues which are likely to be of political contention in an election, the Bill could be interpreted to limit our total expenditure to £390,000 if staffing and other costs are taken into account. As Citizens UK’s anticipated expenditure in 2014-5 is £1.5m the impact would be disastrous.” Citizens UK,

“Most non-party campaigners are not of course organised on a constituency basis. Obtaining the information necessary to identify potential cases of non-compliance at constituency level, and particularly the evidence needed to be able to sanction breaches, is likely to be so difficult that these provisions may be unenforceable in practice.”Electoral Commission

“The red tape terrifies me... when you think about how we are funded and the money that goes to fund my position, it’s not right that it would just go to be wasted on red tape.” Shelter Cymru – Wales

Examples of how the work of charities could be affected
A letter from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations describe some possible scenarios showing how prefectly reasonably activities by charities could fall foul of the proposed legislation
1) A health charity could publish a leaflet highlighting the dangers of smoking. If smoking legislation became a party political issue in an election this activity could be deemed to have the effect of supporting a party’s campaign, and be subject to regulation.

2) A local community group could campaign for or against a proposed bypass road. If local candidates subsequently express a view on the issue the campaigning activity could be deemed to assist candidates’ election campaigns. The community group would become subject to regulation, even if it had acted apolitically and had no intention to support any candidate’s campaign.

3) A children’s charity calls for a statutory inquiry via the media in response to a major abuse scandal at the same time as one of the major political parties. This could leave them open to claims that they have inadvertently benefited that party’s election campaign


13Dec13 : 38Degrees Camapign
38Degrees, God Bless Them, are running a campaign to inform the Lords of the dangers posed by the proposed legislation

16Jan14 : Government defeated in Lords on key aspect of the Bill (info, slightly edited, from 38 Degrees):
Last night the government was defeated in a crucial House of Lords vote on the gagging law. Amendment 45, by Lord Harries’centred on staff costs for charities and campaign groups. The government wanted the gagging law to place heavy restrictions on how much campaigning work staff at charities or campaigning groups could do. That could have meant, for example, limits on how many public meetings about the NHS 38 Degrees staff could help organise. Amendment 45 removed most of these restrictions on staff.

Over 160,000 people signed the last-minute petition to ask Lords to back these important changes. It helped tip the balance and people power worked. The proposed changes were backed by Lords from across the political spectrum. Lord Tyler, an influential Lib Dem peer, joined with Baroness Mallalieu (Labour) and Lord Cormack (Conservative), to support the amendment. The government were defeated by 237 votes to 194.

The campaign is working and together we’ve got the government on the back foot. But we’re not out of the woods yet. Next week, on the 21st January, the Lords will hold their final vote on changes to the law.

Oct 2014 : Update from 38 Degrees:
The Gagging Bill is now Law. An update from 38 Degrees can be found here. In addition, here are some case studies from the Civil Society Commission showing how the bill affects charities . Some amendments were made to the Bill, but it is not clear to BFTF what they were, so have asked the local Conservative Party to advise on this.

Related articles : Amendment wording, Guardian article,

22Jan14 : MPs reverse key Lords Amendments (edited, via 38Degrees):
Lords Amendment requiring Ministers’ special advisors to record their meetings with lobbyists: Rejected by MPs (311 to 258)
Lords Amendment changing how staff costs count towards total spending limits: Rejected by MPs (310 to 278)
Lords Amendment changing scope of what counts towards constituency spending limits: Rejected by MPs (314 to 274)

"It’s pretty depressing. But it’s not over. The House of Lords will now get another vote – probably next week. They have the option to refuse to back down, and force MPs to vote yet again."

Related articles and information: The Guardian, Federation of Womens Institutes, CAB, Royal British Legion

Oh, and here is an MP behaving badly...and another one.

28Jan14 : Lords fail to reinstate amendments (edited, via 38Degrees):
"I wanted to let you know straight away. I'm afraid we lost the gagging law vote in the House of Lords this evening. That's it - it's going to become law. It couldn't have been closer. On the final vote, 245 Lords voted in favour and 245 against. Unfortunately the rules mean that in the case of a tie, the government gets its way."

31Jan14 : Will Labour repleal the Gagging Law (edited, via 38Degrees):
"There's one thing we can be pretty sure will be happening right now. The Labour Party will be weighing up whether to make an official pledge to scrap the gagging law if they win the next election. They've opposed it up to this point. Now it has become law they have to decide whether to continue that opposition."

That will be Ed Miliband's choice, and he could well be deciding in the next few days. He is more likely to make scrapping the gagging law an election pledge if he hears from thousands of members of the public telling him they want him to. So please could you send him a quick email now?"

Feb 2014 : Received a email from the Shadow Leader of the House of Commons
Presuambly sent out to everyone who responded to 38Degrees request to challenge ed Milliband, the email said:

"Labour opposed the gagging bill. We voted against the bill all the way through the Commons and Lords, and we believe wholeheartedly in protecting freedom of speech, the right to campaign and fairness in elections.

If we are elected in May 2015, we will find a way to put this wrong right. We are considering exactly how we can best achieve this, so we are taking some time to talk to our MPs, campaigners, and other experts about the next steps. "

It also requested some feedback on BFTFs views on the bill, so BFTF wrote this:

On any issue that has the government (of any colour) on one side and 38 Degrees, the Countryside Alliance, Shelter, CitizensUK, the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society on the other - I am going to favour the NGOs. And it is an outrage that the government is seeking to prevent NGOs speaking out before an election - AT THE TIME I MOST WANT TO HEAR FROM THEM. It's not right, it's not British and it's not fair.

Also received a response from BFTF's local (Labour) MP who said that :

"This badly drafted legislation could end up having a chilling effect on charities and community groups that are conducting legitimate campaigning work. This Act was supposed to clamp down on paid-for lobbyists arm-twisting govenments into making decisions in their clients' interets without proper transparency and openness. Instead, charities are being targeted for wanting to raise health, education and other public interest concerns with Members of Parliament. Thre Government has put in place legislation which is an affront to our democracy and I will continue to support calls for the Act to be repealed"

Thursday, 12 December 2013

It doesn't take much to make a change

Campaigning organisaiton www.Change.org has a fascinating page describing, amongst many other things, how few participants it can take to persuade an organisation to change its behaviour.

For example, there was the petition by Damilola Adegoke and Prince Ade Adewoyin in Nigeria asking the state government to locate and distribute the 7000 "lost" schoolbooks that had been donated by a US education district. Just 10 signatures were all that was required to get a meeting with the State Librarian at the Governor's Office, get the books located and get the distribution process started!

Or, in a very different vein, there is the charming petition by Bill Stoker requesting the installation of a small oven at the Cookie Lee staff canteen, so that employees could warm up food. Just 10 signatures were required to achieve success! An insight into why the campaign was so devastatingly effectice comes from one of the managers, who is reported as saying that the boss "has agreed to our demands and wants the emails to stop. Apparently he gets an email every time someone signs the petition"

Or there is the example in Turkey where just 144 signatures were required to get bikes allowed on public transport in Izmir.

Because of a Change.org petition, bikes are now allowed on public transport in Izmir

The page also lists some of the things that make a campaign more effective:

Petitions are 7 times more likely to succeed if they have a photo or video.

Twice as likely to succeed if they are shared over 50 times.

Twice as likely to succeed if they get media coverage.

40% of petitions win with less than 200 signatures.

22% of petitions win within a week of starting.

Image Source:: wikipedia

Monday, 9 December 2013

A Declaration of Muslim Unity

The South African Petition
The MCB Statement

The South African Petition
You can sign the petition below at :

A Declaration of Muslim Unity

· Whosoever is an adherent of the recognised Sunni and Shi’i Schools of Jurisprudence is a Muslim;

· It is not possible to declare as apostates any group of Muslims who believe in Allah the Mighty and Sublime and Allah’s Messenger (Peace and Blessings be upon him) and respects the pillars of Islam;

· There exists more in common between the various Schools of Jurisprudence than there are differences. The adherents to these Schools of Jurisprudence are in agreement as regards the basic principles of Islam, the five pillars of Islam and the foundations of belief;

· Acknowledging the diversity of Schools of Jurisprudence and affirming discussion and engagement between them ensures fairness, moderation, mutual forgiveness, compassion, and only by engaging in dialogue with our fellow Muslims can we advance our understanding of our faith and

· Historically these various Schools have lived in relative harmony in various countries and find commonality in the annual Hajj pilgrimage where they all gather in a display or universalism and unity.


· We are deeply apprehensive at the way in which discourse in the Muslim community is beginning to assume a sectarian dimension;

· We are aware that the entrenched sectarian fault lines adds to the already existing tensions within our beleaguered communities;

· We witness with great sorrow the destructive potential of sectarian strife as evidenced in present day Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Pakistan and other countries;

· We are conscious of the strategy of ‘divide and rule’ used by colonial and imperial powers to subjugate the Muslim world;

· We call on all Muslims to recognize that, as in the past, ethnic and sectarian fragmentation can only benefit those who oppose Muslim self-determination;

· We recognise that conflicts in areas of the Middle-East are driven primarily by political considerations and that religious sectarianism is imposed on such conflicts in order to drive particular ideological and political agendas;

· We express our concern that the ‘Ulama organisations in this country are at the forefront of creating this sectarian strife, in what seems an orchestrated campaign driven by foreign elements;

· We are all too conscious that one cannot separate the emotive discourse used to promote sectarian division from its violent consequences;

· We are particularly concerned that agencies involved in the distribution of aid are becoming sectarian and engaging in political and ideological partisanship;

· We urge Muslims throughout the world to shun the language of sectarian mischief or strife in favour of a sacred struggle for justice, freedom and self-determination, and

· We appeal to all Muslims to be inspired by the spirit and principles of mutual recognition, mutual respect, pluralism and solidarity. * (extracts from the Sunni Shia Unity Declaration launched in the UK in 2007)

We call on the South African Muslim community to:
· Desist from using religious platforms to divide the community along sectarian lines;

· Desist from labelling as apostates those who believe in the pillars of the faith;

· Avoid creating a religious dimension to conflicts that are fundamentally geo-political;

· Avoid supporting aid agencies that play a sectarian and divisive role in our communities;

· Embrace legitimate differences within our community with respect and compassion, and

· Support all struggles for freedom, liberty and self-determination around the world.

8 December 2013, South Africa


The MCB statement
The MCB has the following statement here:
http://www.mcb.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2350:intrafaithunity&catid=82:mcb-news, you may wish to ask your own org to sign it too.

A Commitment To Muslim Intra-Faith Unity in the United Kingdom

WHERAS WE, the Muslims of the United Kingdom, comprise of one of the most diverse Muslim communities on earth: reflecting the rich diverse ethnic and religious mosaic that makes up the Muslim Ummah.

WHEREAS the promise of transition in the Middle East and Muslim world is now threatened by instability, which is increasingly being expressed as a ‘Sunni-Shia’ confrontation. It exacerbates the limited theological differences, while ignoring the vast areas of commonality and the core foundations on which all Muslims stand.

WHEREAS WE, as British Muslims, strive to live in harmony and cohesion, and agree that the challenges of the future should supersede the problems of the past, we are keen to offer any help and join hands with all those who wish well for our Ummah, stopping this vicious cycle of violence in the Middle-East and Muslim world which is abhorrent to all Islamic values and principles.

WE are resolved to prevent this tragedy from spilling over to our Muslim society in the United Kingdom.

To this end, we call on all British Muslims to honour the following code:

1. We believe in the oneness and supremacy of Allah, in Muhammad (peace be upon him) as the seal of the prophets and the last receiver of a divine scripture, and in the viability and authenticity of the Glorious Quran, and who faces the qibla (direction of the Ka’bah) in prayers. As such no group or individual shall use, propagate or tolerate the rhetoric of takfir (charge of unbelief) for anyone.

2. We shall respect each other and our differences and be sensitive to the personalities, places and events that any group amongst us hold in esteem. In our respective disagreements, we shall abide by the Islamic manner (adab) of disagreement that is neither inflammatory nor insulting.

3. We shall avoid hate and condescending speech and literature in our midst and join to condemn violent rhetoric by reasonable means.

4. Our places of worship, the sanctity of which is not diminished by their difference, deserve protection. We resolve that attacks on these places of worship are attacks on us all, giving cause for the strongest possible response.

5. We call on our Ulama from all traditions to form a positive space for reconciliation and cooperation. The forum will facilitate responses that challenge our intra-faith unity.

6. While the precarious international situation will no doubt heighten our concern and activism, we are resolved to campaign in an inclusive, non-sectarian manner.

7. Above all, we shall emphasise areas of commonality, the virtue of compassion and empathy and the awareness that Allah is closer to us than our heart and veins and He the Almighty is recording our thoughts and intentions, as well as our words and deeds.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Interview : Kamran Fazil from Islamic Help

A fascinating interview recently with Kamran Fazil (from the charity Islamic Help) looking at issues relating to the efficient aid delivery, the importance of water and also some tips on effective donating.

Tiny bit of Info about Islamic Help
Smiles Better
A School Satchel
The Muslim Charities Forum
Ladies with buckets of water
Be Fair in Your Funding
Do More Than One Thing at a Time
The Special Question
Further Links

A tiny bit of info about Islamic Help
Kamran described how the charity had grown from modest beginnings in 2003, initially only looking to support a single school in Pakistan – to large organisation, operating in many countries around the world, that it is now.

Smiles Better
As an example of the innovative programmes that the charity undertakes, Kamran gave the example of the "Smiles Better" campaign which aims to provide medical and other help to women who have been the victims of acid attacks in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uganda, Nepal and Cambodia.

The work of the programme featured in the Academy Award winning short documentary "Saving Face"

As well as medical help, the program also aims to providing employment opportunities for the victims and also to combat the culture that allowed the attacks in the first place.

Kamran emphasised the importance of the multi-pronged approach, commenting that:
"Tackling the issues of women and gender equality is one of the issues that we need to tackle to combat poverty around the world"
and also recognising that pious words and legislation were not enough :
"a country can pass legislation but…courts have to be strong, policing has to be strong "
And public opinion also had to change, and this change has to " come from the local community, no good someone from the west telling the east what to do"

A school satchel
BFTF asked Kamran about comparing the effectiveness of charities by giving the example of two charities who are asking for donations to provide school satchels for kids in a developing country.

One charity takes the money, buys the satchels cheaply from a supermarket and sends them to the country for distribution.

The other charity looks for satchel manufacturers and suppliers in the developing country itself and tries to source the satchels from them.

The second charity is presumably doing a more effective job of delivering aid, but how are donors to know which charity is doing what so that they can donate accordingly.

Kamran responded by saying that he was a big fan of partnership and that there were indeed a great many factors that needed to be examined in order to deliver the most effective and sustainable aid.

Sharing resources, both with other charities and with local businesses, was important.

Kamran went on to explain that, when working at the scene of a natural disaster, charities will form a round table or have so-called "cluster meetings" in which the NGOs decide how to work together to deliver aid effectively. For example, the group may decide that one charity will focus on food while another focuses on delivering medical aid.

How does your charity source its school satchels?

The Muslim Charities Forum
Within the UK, Muslim charities have formed an organisation called the Muslim Charities Forum to allow Muslim charities to speak with one voice and also to act as an advocate at a government level.

The forum also allows charities to meet and discuss best practice. For example, if two charities find that their costs for providing a Qurbani(Eid animal sacrifice) in a particular country are wildly different, the forum provides a place where they can talk and decide where the best practice lies, or perhaps share costs to improve efficiency.

BFTF was shocked.

Muslim organisations working together.

Don't see that very often.

Kamran commented that, in regards to their relationship with the public, there were responsibilities on both sides:

There is a responsibility on charities to be honest, to be transparent and to educate the public of positive effect that longer term, more sustainable, aid can deliver

And there was a responsibility on donors and the public to question and challenge charities to ensure that they are working to best practice.

As an introduction to the topic of access to water in the developing world, BFTF offered up the point that for many in the UK, water was not something they thought about, it just came out of a tap. Instead, what worried people was ensuring they always had a good internet signal.

In contrast, Kamran described how, when he was in a very deprived part of Somalia, there was very little access to water, but he could Tweet from his mobile phone without any problems!

Kamran went on to remind people that giving water to those without this precious resource was one of the best forms of Sadaqa Jariya (continuous charity) - a view that has also been expressed to BFTF by other charities.

But thought needs to be given to how water should be delivered to people. The best way is not always to dig a well. Kamran recalled how, in when there was a famine in Somalia, some charities were raising money to dig wells – but it was a famine, there was a drought, there was no water !

Sometimes, other approaches such as trucking in water or water harvesting are more appropriate.

Rainwater harvesting can take many forms, but one example is to fix peoples roofs and install drainage so that rainwater collects in water butts. If such an approach is taken, it needs to go hand in hand with education of the local people so that they know how to keep their roofs clean and the water containers clean.

Another approach is to build dams in valleys, even if the water collected is not suitable for humans, it is likely to be good enough for livestock to drink, which reduces the pressure on the limited about of potable water that may be available.

And, of course, trees are perhaps the most effective way of ensuring that water is kept in the soil and does not drain away. Cutting trees in an unsustainable way results in soil and water loss, resulting in a lowering of the water table and running the risk of wells drying up.

"In Meatu district, Shinyanga region, Tanzania,
water most often comes from open holes dug in the sand of dry riverbeds,
and it is invariably contaminated."

The key word here is "unsustainable" – the environment can cope with trees being cut in moderation, it is when the pace of destruction is faster than the forest can regenerate itself that problems occur. Kamran emphasised that we "need to start giving respect back" to the environment

In many cases, the situation can be helped by slowly regenerating the land, with the aid of outside agricultural experts to provide advice – the solutions still need to come from the people themselves to be sustainable. The advice might relate to "permaculture" practices, in which efforts are made to create sustainable and productive farmland using non-polluting and sustainable approaches such as combining trees and ground crops, or using mulches to improve soil water retention.

[NB: A lot of useful related information in this Wikipedia article on Water Scarcity] And there is a long Islamic history of protecting green spaces and water sources by denoting them as being protected "Hima" or "Haram" respectively.

Kamran gave the example of a locality in a developing country that, 20yrs ago, had a lovely stream running through it. Over the years the trees in the area have been steadily cut down for charcoal, leaving the ground unable to retain water, and the wells dry. The stream has long since disappeared and the local inhabitants have forgotten how their forebears lived in balance with the environment.

Islamic Help is now planting trees in the area to protect the aquifers.

If the problem were only local, then this might be enough, but that is not the case. Large companies are now cutting down many of the trees for sale elsewhere as charcoal. And in some areas, water hungry industries such as soft drink bottling plants can wreak havoc on the water table and severely deplete the aquifers that supply local wells.

So organisations like Islamic Help then need to talk to local and national government, who have to balance the need to protect the environment with the need to attract investment and jobs.

An example of Innovation  : The Groasis Waterboxx

Ladies with buckets of water
I'm sure we have all seen and heard about how women in some areas of the developing world walk for miles to get water – and have thought that this is an outrage and that a well clearly needs to be dug in the village itself so save these women from all this hard labour.

But what we have probably not heard is comments like those of Kamran, who said that, often these women were bringing the water to the village in order to sell it, and building a well will instantly put these women out of a job. As Kamran pointedly asks, "What other source of income will you provide for those women"

And how will the well be maintained? Who will pay for spare parts for the pump? In many cases, once the well breaks down, the community is forced to revert back to collecting water from some distance away.

So Islamic Help, when building a well, tries to ensure that the water carriers have an alternative means of earning an income so that they can continue to support their families and that the future maintenance of the well has been considered.

Northern Tanzania

Be fair in your funding
Kamran commented that many people have a very narrow view of what constitutes "aid", and do not see that planting trees, or campaigning against gender based violence, are poverty issues.

This view is a double whammy as it means that these kinds of projects do not receive much funding, and also means that charities are therefore less likely to undertake, or even suggest, them.

The solution, according to Kamran, is education. Charities have to educate donors in the value of schemes such as tree planting. Masajid have to educate the community, and Imams need to be equipped with an understanding of current affairs. Youth Groups and, of course, also parents have an educating role to play.

Do more than one thing at a time
BFTF asked Kamran whether the Muslim community was too focussed on overseas aid, via Muslim charities, and should perhaps also directing some of their donations towards organisations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Help The Aged, CancerUK etc

Kamran responded by saying that all of these charities, as well as many others "do a fantastic job" and that it was important to direct some support towards organisations working locally within the UK.

He added that would encourage other Muslim aid charities and community groups to also look working on local issues

Islamic help, for their part, are working with Help the Aged and are also running soup kitchens in the UK.

Charmingly, Kamran recounted how he was involved in a project with a local Church group to provide Christmas hampers to local people in dire economic need and that this had become a valuable annual interfaith event.

Kamran also pointed out that peoples time was even more valuable to Islamic Help that their donations.

The Special Question
All guests on the BFTF show are asked a "Special Question" : What do you think is the best thing about living in the UK?

Kamrans response was to say this:

I've travelled to many countries throughout the world. For me, my health is important, and in the media recently the NHS has taken a lot of stick – let me tell the listeners out there that the NHS is amongst one of the best services that you will receive anywhere in the world.

I could talk about this really quite passionately, its not where it was 10 years ago, or where it was 5 years ago….but in the way it is currently, the NHS is a godsend.

I have had to visit medical centres in other countries and, by God… if I had to live there, if my child suffered a terrible accident, then I would be on my knees begging Allah Almighty for something like the NHS where I can take my child straight away and take him to see a doctor and get him fixed up. I wouldn't mind being on a waiting list, waiting to pick up the phone because I know I will get something.

Further links for Islamic Help
Website, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter.

Image Sources
Satchel, Waterbox, Tanzania, Water Source