Norwich conference tackles issues of social justice
Christian leaders and projects took a prominent role in a conference which brought together over 170 social justice practitioners and organisations from across Norfolk at the King’s Centre in Norwich yesterday (January 29). Keith Morris reports.
Opening the event, the Catholic Bishop of East Anglia, the Rt Rev Alan Hopes, said: “To love and serve our neighbour is a Christian commandment but it seems to me that this principle holds good for men and women of faith and of none. For the foundation of this principle is the dignity of the human person. It is a dignity that we are born with – and for people of faith it comes from God himself.
“Those who are homeless, those in prison, those who are being trafficked, the elderly, the mentally sick, the migrants, those on low incomes, the disables, the refugees, those who are poorly housed – all those who are vulnerable, powerless or disadvantages – they can never be a burden on us, they are our brothers and sisters, they are our responsibility.
“But there is more – this principle to love our neighbour demands that not only should we seek to help those who are in need, but we should also address the causes of destitution, vulnerability and poverty. This means constantly bringing the needs of those who are marginalised of vulnerable to the attention of those who have political power and calling for radical changes which will make such a difference to people’s lives.”
The Rt Rev Jonathan Meyrick, the Bishop of Lynn, said: “We should care for those who are less fortunate than ourselves because it is built into the Christian faith and many of the world’s faiths and religions.”
Alan Waters, leader of Norwich City Council outlined the situation Norwich finds itself in today.
He said that Norwich is a young city (average age of 33.7, compared to 40 for UK as a whole), it is a working city with 81% employment, though a third of working residents are on the National Living/ Minimum Wage (£7.50, £7.83 from April).
It is also an unequal city with child poverty at double the English average (14.4%) at 29% and pensioner poverty at 22.8% (England 12.9%). It is the 47th most deprived of 426 UK areas and the 30th lowest for social mobility. Healthy life expectancy (ie years lived without serious ill health) ranges from 55 in Mancroft to 71 in Eaton.
Cllr Waters said that the council is a Living Wage employer, provides social housing, has a digital inclusion programme, campaigns against loan sharks and has rough sleeping initiatives. He also provided reassurance that the various Norwich soup kitchens will be allowed to continue.
Following the keynote speakers, conference delegates from faith and secular social justice projects across Norwich and Norfolk heard from seven speakers who each addressed an area which would be focused on by discipline-based work groups during the afternoon session.
Dr Jan Sheldon, newly-appointed CEO of St Martin’s Housing Trust, spoke about homelessness. There are 20,000 homeless people in the East of England at the last count with numbers of rough sleepers in Norfolk down at the count reported this month to 30 in Norwich, 9 in King’s Lynn & West Norfolk and 8 in Waveney. “People who are homeless often have complex lives and there is no single solution,” said Jan. “But every night spent sleeping rough is a personal disaster for someone.”
Paul Mortimer, from the Prison Service, explained that life is tough for newly released prisoners because the world has often changed a lot while they were in prison and the terms of their licence sometimes make things difficult for them.
Paul Martin, CEO of the Matthew Project, spoke about mental health and substance abuse and the connection between the two. Half of all mental health problems start by the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 24, with those on low incomes at the highest risk with figures doubling in the last ten years. He also spoke about increased risk of mental health issues for young mothers, the homeless and veterans.
Daniel Childerhouse, from Living Wage Norwich, said 25% of workers in Norwich (ie 18,000 people) earn less than the Real Living Wage (£8.75 per hour). “Low pay has a disproportionate effect on females, ethnic minorities, part-timers and young workers,” said Daniel. “Low pay contributes to marginalisation, poor social mobility and social exclusion.”
Carrie Sant, from City Saints in Action, talked about the experience of migrants and refugees in Norwich: “Each person has a name and a story,” she said. “The social care system is largely broken and these people need friends, mentors and role models to support them, maybe just for an hour a week.”
Jonathan Moore, chair of Equal Lives, spoke passionately about disability rights and said that they are going backwards, thanks to the government’s austerity policies. There is however organised resistance from the disabled community which is fighting back to redress the balance.
Sue Whitaker, former chair of adult social care for Norfolk County Council, spoke about social care for the elderly. She explained that the top three reasons for referral to social care for the elderly were loneliness, dementia and loss of mobility. “We need to see a lot more social justice in the social care mix,” she said.
Dan Mobbs, CEO of the Mancroft Advice Project, provided a summary of the day and reflected the very positive mood of delegates on the event.
Conference organiser, Tony Gammage, founder of Living Wage Norwich, said that the afternoon discussion forums were very lively with much information exchanged, issues addressed and contacts made.
“Our planning group will be meeting within the next ten days to review the conference, read the evaluation reports and plan follow-up activities.
A useful programme and delegates’ directory from the conference can be downloaded here.
To see a picture gallery of the conference, see top or click here.