Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Cuts Day

Looks like its going to be a terrible day: 500,000 jobs lost in the public sector - hundreds of creative arts jobs at risk in Wales due to changes at s4c - Ronney is leaving Manchester United - and its beginning to sink in that I have just run thousands of miles training for a half marathon that was an irritating 193 meters too short.

The thing that bothers me most: I still fear that this UK Government is introducing these sorts of cuts not just because they have to but because they want to.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Cardiff Half Marathon

Sorry I haven't been blogging a great deal of late. I have been busy running and getting ready for the Cardiff Half Marathon. Yesterday, I was thrilled to complete the race in 2:18. It was great fun and many thanks to everyone for their fantastic support. Congratulations to all my team mates from the Welsh Refugee Council. Well done everyone.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Immigration and the Invictus Threshold - The Final Debate

Last night I decided not to watch the final prime ministerial debate on TV. Seeing them debate might get in the way of discerning something I wanted desperately to grapple with.

For me, there was one key question to answer. Would any of the candidates cross the Invictus threshold? That is, would any of the them rise above the political cultures that produced them, bravely challenge perceptions at a crucial point in an election campaign, and make us all a little more than what we used to be?

Instead of watching TV, I took our poor dog for a very long walk and listened avidly to every word through my beloved IPhone. This little global device has been produced by an industry driven by the genius of the maligned: immigrants. Google, Yahoo, Intel and eBay all have one thing in common. They were co-founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Hotmail was co-founded by Sabeer Bhatia, who arrived in the US in 1988 with $200 in his pocket. Ten years later he sold Hotmail to Microsoft for $10 million.

Globally, the world's peoples are on the move. National responses to this global experience has largely stayed still. That lack of moving culturally on our part in the UK has been observed painfully in the context of our general election debates over the past few days.Immigration is back on the agenda in the most negative of ways.

Listening to last night's debate on the economy I thought over and over again of the piercing analysis offered regarding immigration by the Canadian-American economic genius, J.K. Galbraith. He knew how overwhelmingly advantageous migration was to economic prosperity.

'Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?'

Recently published reports have highlighted the value of migrants to our economy - especially in London where the Mayor has called for an amnesty for some of those who have worked in the UK without authorisation. Those who have cheated don't reflect the majority in our global experience of migration. The UN recently estimated that at least 85% of the world's migrants live and worked in host nations lawfully. So, what is the perversity in the human soul that causes us to resist so obvious a good?

Let me be up front. I wouldn't take too much issue with policies of the three main parties regarding strengthening our border controls or with the obvious need to "count them all in and to count them all out." As a citizen, I want my country to have safe borders and have managed immigration.

So, I listened...I thought all three performed well. To his credit, David Cameron has moved the Conservatives on from the horrible anti asylum vitriol of the Michael Howard era. He's also spoken well of the contribution of immigrants. I'll grant him that. But, it wasn't that difficult to improve on Michael Howard's stance on immigration. On the issue of tax breaks for the very rich,he wasn't anywhere near an Invictus threshold.

Gordon Brown also saw the economic advantage of attracting people our economy needs. For that and other issues around immigration he also gets some credit. I have a great deal of time for Gordon Brown as regards the economy. Most of us have prospered under his stewardship of it. As I listened however, I could almost discern an electorate hearing pertinent points but not really listening any more. I didn't see the final smile at the end of the debate: I merely heard it and felt a little sad.

To this immigration debate I bring a specific set of experiences. They relate to a small part of the much wider immigration story. Having worked closely with asylum seekers and refugees for over ten years, I have had cause often to criticise the Government for its treatment of displaced people and their children. I have also had cause to be grateful.

At the beginning of this century the major concern was the perfunctory exploration of cases that led to 80% of all asylum applicants being branded as cheats in the press. When their stories were explored with greater thoroughness, the number of asylum claims accepted could rise to some 40% with a further 10% being granted exceptional leave to remain because it was impractical or unsafe to return them home. The truth of it is, every year in the 1990s, Britain came ninth or tenth in the European league table of number of asylum applications per thousand of population. On a specific Welsh note, the placing of asylum detainees in places such as Cardiff Prison in 2001 was disgraceful. Regarding that matter, I would commend all the parties represented at the National Assembly for Wales. They made their concerns known.

The truth of it is the world suddenly became a different place after the fall of the Iron Curtain. New wars in the former Yugoslavia and parts of Africa caused a flood of refugees. So did the vileness of characters such as Robert Mugabe and Saddam Hussein. Handling such numbers wasn't easy for the Home Office. I am therfore grateful. The UK welcomed tens of thousands of vulnerable individuals who would otherwise have lost their lives.

I have many close friends who wouldn't be alive today if they had not been granted sanctuary in the UK. It is a symptom of that perversity in the human soul referred to by Galbraith that we cannot even now, in the context of three major TV debates, celebrate that obvious good we have done under the Labour government since 1997. I thought of the refugee doctors trained in Wales who are contributing so significantly to the NHS in the UK. It would have been so good to celebrate their achievement and contribution - and that of many others.

The Invictus meltdown during the final debate occurred for me when both Brown and Cameron turned on Clegg regarding the amnesty proposed for those migrants who have been in the UK for more than ten years. It was an easy hit to make.

Why the need for an amnesty? Listening through my IPhone I remembered the thorough investigative journalism of Nick Cohen in his Pretty Straight Guys in 2003. I also remembered the chaos around the immigration scene in 2000.

Ironically in April 1996, during Michael Howard's watch, the Home Office signed a Private Finance Initiative with the computer conglomerate, Siemens. New Labour took it over. To cut a long story short, the new IT system didn't work on time. As a consequence, mountains of immigration files were held in warehouses with data that should have been transferred to disks. Cohen records that the strain of coping with a wrecked immigration service was too much for many immigration officers: 363 resigned in 1998.

Clegg's words brought back memories. To the backdrop of the wars in the former Yugoslavia sending refugees flooding across Europe the UK immigration minister, Mike O'Brien, was admitting in the Commons that his department was receiving a daily average of 56,223 calls in June 1999. A mere 1,707 were actually being answered. By the beginning of 2000, the backlog of undecided cases was a staggering 98,000. Ten years ago, it sometimes took 28 months to decide some cases. Judges handling asylum appeals, according to Cohen, reckoned that seven out of ten found a legal or illegal way to stay. Beuraucratic chaos doesn't justify overstaying unlawfully but it does make it more probable. It also created a problem that needs to be solved.

Being brave enough to offer a one off possible solution to a specific legacy issue of illegal working and overstaying, that no-one else wished to highlight because it was too inconvenient a reality, commended Clegg to me. In this, he came closest in Thursday's debate, to crossing the Invictus threshold.

Why place such an importance on crossing such a threshold? It is because I am afraid as election day looms.

As an electorate, we have begun to discern that hard choices lay ahead of us. Sadly, the early signs are already there that we have begun to scapegoat and indulge an irrational fear of the weak, the vulnerable and the different. The Daily Mail hasn't moved on an inch from the time in February 1900 when one of its journalist watched some 600 passengers arrive on the British liner the Cheshire at Southampton. He saw an array of desperate Jews escaping the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and wrote viciously: 'These were the penniless refugees, and when the the Relief Committee passed by they hid their gold and fawned and whined.'

Was it the perversity in our soul last night that prevented us from even beginning to address the reality that throughout Europe during the recent recession, unemployment has been much higher amongst migrant peoples - those who have cleaned and built our buildings, served us in the hospitality industry, picked our crops, and cared for our infirm. They have also been less able to return money home, making the world's poor much poorer. The impact, for example, of Moldova's recent 37% fall in income from its diaspora is especially severe. Remittances are equivalent to a third of the country's national income.

As this election draws to a close over the next few days I will look anew at which party is most likely to enable the UK to become a little more than what it used to be. I'll also be praying...

Friday, 12 February 2010

Invictus Mosgito

For a few hours yesterday afternoon something quite special happened in Wales. S4C had asked me as an adult to say something about racism on the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. It was on their young people's Mosgito programme. I did my bit but there were far more important contributions yesterday both off and on screen.

Off screen I watched a new Wales being forged before my very eyes. Two boys from Bala, one white and the other black, held conversation with two Welsh speaking Muslim girls from Cardiff. They are sisters. Yesterday, they were all different: they were all equally Welsh. They were all Welsh speaking.

They could have spoken about race, hijabs, or racism. What really bothered them was the relative sizes of their respective schools in Bala and Cardiff. The really important question was how long was the dinner queue in their school? Four young Welsh people filled me with hope. Wales' tomorrow is in safe hands.

Today I watched Invictus. I enjoyed the rugby scenes and the history (although some of it was not historical). What I enjoyed the most was the exploration of the words of William Ernest Henley's Invictus:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I will go and see this film again and stand in awe of Nelson Mandela's forgiveness. I now have a new favourite film.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Lovely Girls

Last night was fun. I had a meal with Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies in Merthyr and spoke a lot about America and Obama. I could still remember bits of their book Will America Change? It all reminded me of times when I felt a little more positive about politics.

This, lets be honest, has not been a good week for Welsh public life or for Welsh politics.

This morning, having issued a two minute Dweud Eich Dweud meditation for BBC Radio Cymru, something a little strange happened. I was given a copy of the Daily Post by my interviewer. That was for a reason. On Monday morning I had given an interview with the same journalist on the new student visa application regulations announced by the Home Office.

I had conceded during that initial interviews that there had been much in the Government's migration policy of late that I heartily agreed with. Taking action against bogus colleges must surely be a good thing. I'm not sure of the extent to which the new regulations will do anything to combat English speaking single potential terrorists who complete their university courses and then leave for Dubai and Yemen before attempting to blow up planes. In fairness, I don't think it was claimed that they would.

The Daily Post contained an article discussing how an honest politician, Elfyn Llwyd MP from Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, had asked an honest question of a Government Minister, Phil Woolas. Llwyd's question related to the new English language requirement and the recent cases of two Patagonians who had applied for visas to visit Wales. The answer given, according to the Daily Post, was one of the most extraordinary comments I have ever heard on the floor of the House of Commons given in reply to a Member of Parliament: "I'm afraid to tell you that however lovely the two girls were, and they were, we can't waive the immigration rules just because you like them."

As one of those who worked with Elfyn Llwyd to successfully gain a visa for one of the 'lovely girls' on appeal, I was taken aback. None of us involved sought to waive the immigration rules. We also lent our support willingly without reflecting on the great unknown: how lovely the appellants were. The comment left me deeply troubled.

Personally, I believe that the answer to the immediate issue - granting Patagonians visas -rests with crafting a robust set of policy guidelines enabling the granting of ministerial discretion in the case of Patagonians of good standing who wish to visit Wales. I very much hope that the Home Office will reflect seriously on that possibility.

For me, as a Welsh speaker, the 'lovely' incident has left a much more significant question unanswered. In the face of a growing emphasis in UK politics on the English language, not so much as a reasonable means of communication, but more as an emblem of a certain sort of 'national uniformity', where does that leave those of us whose first British language isn't English? That's my distinctive within a modern nation: others will have different distinctives and emblems of identity. Such diverse blocks build modern nations.

Why, following today's vote in the Senedd, should the National Assembly acquire greater powers? The answer for me is clear. So that Welsh civic and political society can command the constitutional tools to create a Wales where all of us have a right to be different and distinctive but also have a right to belong - both in rights and obligations. A Wales where all who wish to claim a Welsh identity, should be enabled to do so.

Time will now tell if Wales' politicians have given the development of such a cultural narrative time to gain the apparel of a credible policy agenda that demands greater powers. Of that, I am unsure.

In the meantime, it's within the gift and the competence of the Home Office to allow Patagonians to revisit their cultural legacy in a dignified manner that honours a diverse,sophisticated and international Wales. Talking of those who belong to us, even in part, as being 'lovely' was for me, rather demeaning of a modern nation and those who serve it.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Pleased for Ireland

Now it's up the Celts. England did do well.....

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Ecclesia and Lord Carey

Thanks to Vaughan Jones from Ecclesia my Blog comments concerning Lord Carey and Immigration have done the rounds:

Needless to say, I agree with him.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Responding to Lord Carey's Times Opinion

The UK should have an effective immigration policy and those who migrate to these Islands should respect our values and diverse traditions – including our Christian heritage. Abiding by our laws is also a must.

Unfortunately, Lord Carey has ventured unwisely beyond such issues in today’s Times to discuss the supposed ‘DNA of our nation’. Paradoxically, for someone so intent on putting others through hoops as they arrive on our shores, he seems to be remarkably unaware of the cultural and political diversity of modern Britain.

His sense of the ‘DNA of our nation’ will not be shared by many good British citizens of different faiths and of none. The UK now also has three devolved Governments containing parties with a sense of national identity that isn’t primarily British. This reality impacts increasingly on faith communities. The notion that migrants to Wales should be made to believe that they live in a country with an established church is as quaint as it is erroneous. Wales has no established church.

Lord Carey’s discussion around matters of faith is deeply problematic. Migrants who wish to enter the UK lawfully cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their religion or belief. His comments regarding Sharia Law and ghettos are also unhelpful. If the right of the established Church of England to regulate its own affairs through Canon Law belongs to the very DNA of a nation and if Judaism’s use of Beth Din Courts to resolve civil disputes is deemed beneficial, the lawful exercise of Sharia Law by Muslims cannot be demeaned merely as an exercise appertaining to a 'ghetto'. If faith communities are to be viewed mainly through the prism of their extremists, most will stand condemned.

Crucially, the campaign for Balanced Migration has missed the point in seeking to counter the BNP. It’s not the 70 million too many that bother the BNP: it’s their view of the ethnicity of the one that’s too many. Conversations around the supposed ‘DNA of our nation’ and the ‘nature’ of those who wish to come here have now provided an already obese creature with the comfort of a slightly larger belt.

Lord Carey's Opinion:

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Sorry Lord Carey

Sorry Lord Carey. Migrants who have the skills we need and respects our ways cannot be discriminated against because of their faith or lack of it. It's the calling of the Church to proclaim and uphold the Gospel not the UK Border Agency.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Wootton Bassett

Today, the bodies of more British soldiers were returned from Afghanistam. I thought a lot about them and their families.

Faith leaders would do well not to give their unequivocal support to any military campaign: faith leaders should always give the bereaved families of soldiers lost in battle their deepest pastoral support. It's not the place for protest or politics.

Islam4UK have let us all down. Especially those who have deep reservations about war.

Monday, 4 January 2010


Noticed an interesting piece in today's Independent by Philip Hensher on the new Irish blasphemy laws. As from 1st January it's unlawful to publish or utter matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in matters held sacred by any religion.

I don't enjoy having my faith insulted but I'm just wondering whether some religions or religious practices could do with being insulted.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

So it's not a lucky shirt then...

I set out to be good today. It almost worked.

Things began well. I went to church in Pontypridd for the early Communion. It was good to be with friends and I always enjoy services that don't have hymns.

I enjoy reading some of the Sunday Times on Sunday mornings these days. It's one of those things that I'll do for a while.

Back home, I put the Christmas decorations in the attic and I got ready for the match. I went down to the gym proudly wearing my Manchester United shirt. I was the only one in the gym to be so bold. I learnt two years ago that a good way to deal with the weight thing is to exercise as United play. I got rid of 800 calories over two hours. That was good.

At half time I met a friend from the Muslim community. He doesn't support United but noticed the shirt. We spoke briefly about how to deal with the Abdulmutallab thing - and the reaction to it. Someone from the gym walked past. He probably didn't expect someone wearing a Manchester United shirt and a Muslim on a training bike to sort some of the world's problems out. That's a little sad. Talking always helps.

Manchester United lost 0:1 to Leeds United. That wasn't good. We are no longer in the FA Cup. I like my shirt, but wearing it didn't get off to a good start.

The football thing matters but not that much. I'm more worried about the endless conversations about the Muslim community and radicalisation in the papers today. I hope and pray that the mainstream Muslim community will be heard by the radicals. Getting the mainstream to shout loudly at the likes of Abdulmutallab won't do much good. Finding a way to hold conversations that prevent radicalisation is vital but becoming far more difficult. Got to keep trying though...