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Texas Governor must stop execution of man with mental disability, says Amnesty

Tue, 2014-04-08 20:55

Texas Governor Rick Perry must stop Wednesday’s execution of Ramiro Hernández Llanas, a Mexican national with a mental disability, Amnesty International said today.

Texas Governor Rick Perry must stop Wednesday’s execution of Ramiro Hernández Llanas, a Mexican national with a mental disability, Amnesty International said today (8 April).

The state has relied upon racial stereotyping and the views of discredited “expertise” to secure this death sentence – now due to be carried out shortly after 6pm, local time, on 9 April.

After the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency for Ramiro Hernández Llanas on Monday, his final hope for mercy is a reprieve from the state governor.

“This case cries out for Governor Perry to use his power of reprieve. He must recognise that the state has relied upon shoddy ‘expert’ testimony to get Ramiro Hernández Llanas to the death chamber,” said Rob Freer, Amnesty International’s researcher on the USA.

At the 2000 trial, the prosecution turned to the testimony of a discredited psychiatrist, Dr James Grigson, to rebut the opinions of mental health experts retained by the defence. Grigson, who had never examined the defendant, declared that Ramiro Hernández Llanas would likely commit future acts of criminal violence because he was a sociopath who lacked a conscience. Persuading the jury that the defendant will be a “future danger” to society, even in prison, is a prerequisite for a death sentence in Texas.

“Testimony like Dr Grigson’s has been discredited over the years as ‘junk science’, and he himself was reprimanded and then expelled from the American Psychiatric Association because of his resort to such unscientific testimony in capital trials,” said Rob Freer.

“Given what came next – psychiatric testimony tainted by racial stereotyping – this case stands out starkly as another Texas injustice about to be cemented into permanence in the lethal injection chamber.”

Another psychiatrist, Dr Richard Coons, was presented by the state at a 2008 hearing to rebut a defence expert’s finding that Ramiro Hernández Llanas has ‘mental retardation’ – which would render his execution illegal under a 2002 US Supreme Court ruling.

Dr Coons never met the prisoner or anyone who knew him, does not speak Spanish, and claimed that the prisoner’s criminal conduct was appropriate for his “cultural group”.

“It is a fundamental principle of international law that everyone is equal before the law and has the right to criminal proceedings free from racial or other discrimination,” said Rob Freer.

“While we believe that the death penalty never equates with justice, surely even proponents of judicial killing should see the injustice of a death sentence secured after the presentation of such tainted testimony.”

The Mexican government filed a brief in the US Supreme Court in January condemning the “defamatory stereotyping of the functional abilities of persons raised in Mr Hernandez’s low socio-economic, Mexican culture”.

The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, founded in 1876, together with The Arc of the United States, the USA’s largest community-based organisation working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, also urged the Court to intervene. It refused to do so.

Last week the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued “precautionary measures”, calling on the USA not to go ahead with the execution so that the Commission could have time to consider a petition before it. Today, the Commission stressed that for the USA to allow the execution to go ahead in these circumstances “seriously contravenes its international legal obligations”.

“Texas is no stranger to injustice when it comes to the death penalty,” said Rob Freer.

“Here it is again, about to carry out a death sentence secured with highly questionable testimony against someone whose mental disability calls the constitutionality of his execution into serious question. Governor Perry must act as a matter of urgency.”

Ramiro Hernández Llanas was sentenced to death in February 2000 for the murder of his employer, Glen Lich, who was bludgeoned to death at his ranch in Kerr County on 14 October 1997.

Llanas was born into a childhood of abuse and severe poverty in Mexico, with his family living in a cardboard shack next to a rubbish dump on which they would scavenge. In tests conducted over the past decade, he has been assessed as having an IQ in the 50s or 60s. He suffers from severe adaptive functioning deficits across a range of skill areas including linguistic, academic, conceptual, social, work and domestic.

There have been 15 executions in the USA this year, five of them in Texas. Since judicial killing resumed in the USA in 1977 under revised capital statutes, there have been 1,374 executions nationwide. Texas accounts for 513 of these executions; 274 of them have occurred during Governor Perry’s time in office.

[Ekk/4]

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Heritage, mission and inter faith work top Methodist Church’s agenda

Tue, 2014-04-08 20:42

The Methodist Council met in Leamington Spa from 5 to 7 April to consider some of the key issues that will be debated at this year's Methodist Conference.

The Methodist Council met in Leamington Spa from 5 to 7 April to consider some of the key issues that will be debated at this year's Methodist Conference.

Council members discussed the development of work on inter faith relations, including plans to strengthen the Church's network of advocates and practitioners who work in this field.

The Council also welcomed the presentation of a new policy on the preservation of Methodist historical artefacts. A range of guidance documents will be produced to help people to identify, care for and share such items in order to celebrate the depth and breadth of Methodist Heritage.

How the Church might best release its buildings for mission was a key focus for discussion at the meeting. Council members spent time considering how the challenge of having 'too many' church buildings might be translated into fresh opportunities to serve and minister in local communities throughout Britain.

The Council also received a report on a review of the post of the Secretary of the Conference/General Secretary, and agreed to recommend a new model for the structure of the senior officers of the Conference. Under this new model, the Secretary of the Conference would be the senior person in a three person team where the Assistant Secretary of the Conference and the Connexional Secretary will report to him or her.

"The Council's agenda demonstrates the wide variety of challenges and opportunities facing the Church today," said the Rev Gareth Powell, Secretary of the Methodist Council. "Many of the items which the Council has worked on this year will be considered at the Methodist Conference, which is always an opportunity for worship, debate and sharing with Methodists from across Britain and from our partner Churches around the world."

These and other matters will be debated at the 2014 Methodist Conference which will take place in Birmingham from 26 June to 3 July.

The Methodist Council also approved a briefing on the arguments for and against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement in Israel/ Palestine. The briefing does not make a judgement on the call of the BDS Movement, but considers the arguments in favour and against it. It will be made available online after Easter.

[Ekk/4]

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Book and exhibition: African peacebuilders journey from hurt to hope

Mon, 2014-04-07 18:33

In the week marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Quakers in Britain are launching a book and exhibition of photographs: “This Light that Pushes Me”.

In the week marking the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Quakers in Britain are launching an extraordinary book and exhibition of photographs: “This Light that Pushes Me”, in which African peacebuilders relate their journey from violence to healing to activism.

The book and exhibition features peacebuilders from sub-Saharan Africa, all of whom are Quakers or are involved with Quaker work and who have experienced violence.

Using photographs and personal testimonies, “This Light that Pushes Me” traces the journeys that have transformed that suffering into a force for social change. Over 40 peacebuilders in Africa offered their stories and conducted many of the interviews with one another.

The stories have been gathered and edited by Laura Shipler Chico, Programme Manager for Quaker Peace and Social Witness’ East Africa programme.

Speaking about the inspiration for the project, she said: “Weaving throughout these stories is the belief that somewhere within our imperfect selves, however hidden under layers of grief, loss, tragedy, hurt, and disillusion, there is something good, something wise, something knowing.

"It is this Divine kernel that pushes us to keep struggling to fix our broken world; to transform hurt and grief and the human lust for vengeance into something new, into a commitment to peace no matter the cost.

"This book invites us to do what the peacebuilders in this book have been striving to do for a long time: listen – with simplicity – for the truth. And when we hear it, let us walk side by side right into the heart of hurt, the deep and frightening darkness, and look for light.”

The photographer, Nigel Downes said: “I want people to look at these photographs and recognise something of themselves in them.”

The exhibition, at Friends House, Euston Road London, NW1 2BJ, runs from 9 April to 8 May 2014.

[Ekk/4]

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New research shows continuing harm caused by bedroom tax

Mon, 2014-04-07 01:14

New research shows the number of households hit by the bedroom tax fell by just 15 per cent last year, with nearly six out of seven affected households unable to avoid a cut in rent support.

New research shows that the number of households hit by the bedroom tax has fallen by just 15 per cent during the last year, with nearly six out of seven affected households unable to avoid a cut in rent support.

The research, sourced under the Freedom of Information Act by advocacy outfit False Economy, reveals that the number of households subject to the bedroom tax – which results in a reduction in their housing benefit – has actually increased in some local authorities, and barely fallen in others.

The research suggests that the vast majority of tenants hit have been unable to respond to the cut in their housing budget by moving to a smaller home, earning their way out of housing benefit or taking in a lodger as the government expected.

As rent arrears grow and the widely predicted shortage of vacant one-bedroom properties becomes more apparent, thousands of low-income households have had no choice but to try to absorb a significant cut in their income.

Ministers will claim that the figures could improve over four or five years – but by then many tenants will have been buried under a mountain of unpayable debts, says False Economy.

The figures show the change in councils’ bedroom tax caseload – comparing the number of households who were subject to a reduction in their housing benefit when the tax was introduced last April to the numbers affected in February and March 2014. Some local authorities report an increase in their bedroom tax caseload, while most show only modest reductions.

If the bedroom tax had achieved its stated objective of significantly cutting both the under-occupation and the overcrowding of social housing, the caseload reduction would be significantly greater, says False Economy.

The research’s key findings include:
* In some parts of the country, the number of people affected by the tax has actually risen during the year – with New Forest and Arun District Councils both reporting a 25 per cent increase.
* Only eight councils across Britain have seen their bedroom tax caseload fall by more than a third – compared to 100 local authorities where it has fallen by less than ten per cent.
* The nation or region with the smallest drop in bedroom tax caseload was Scotland – where many councils are refusing to evict affected tenants – but the North East and Wales also had low reductions.

The research suggests that the sharpest fall in caseload would have been expected soon after the tax came into effect, when those who could escape the tax did so.

Given that the reduction also includes the impact of administrative changes that will not be repeated (where a group of people initially assessed to be liable for the tax were later found not to be legally subject to it) – it is unlikely that this year’s modest 15 per cent reduction can be matched in future years.

A False Economy spokesperson commented: “The bedroom tax has failed on each of the government’s stated objectives – just as so many warned it would.

“But the bedroom tax was never about make making housing allocation fairer or cutting the welfare bill. It was about putting social housing further out of the reach of those who need it, and driving families into a debt spiral that traps them in squalid overpriced private tenancies and jobs that don’t pay.”

Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The bedroom tax is one of the most spiteful and unfair measures introduced by this government. It shows just how out of touch with ordinary people and the real world ministers are.

“Ministers seem not to know about the nationwide shortage of single bedroom social homes nor are they aware of any of the many valid reasons why tenants need more space than the government says they do.

“And the bedroom tax hasn’t stopped the housing benefit bill from going up. This is because wages have stagnated for the working poor and rents have increased as the decades long failure to build enough homes bites,” she concluded.

* False Economy - why the cuts are the wrong cure: http://falseeconomy.org.uk

[Ekk/3]

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World Council of Churches calls for more action on arms trade

Mon, 2014-04-07 00:56

The WCC has welcomed ratification of the world’s first Arms Trade Treaty, a year after it was adopted by the UN General Assembly, but wants more action.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) has welcomed ratification of the world’s first Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a year after it was adopted by the UN General Assembly – but wants more action.

“It is especially important that five of the world’s top 10 arms exporters are among those ratifying on 2 April 2014 – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK,” the General Secretary of the WCC, the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, said in a public comment.

“A few such suppliers dominate the multi-billion dollar global trade in arms,” he added.

“The news reminds us each day of how urgently people in different parts of the world need the arms trade to be brought under greater control,” Dr Tveit said.

After the ceremony at the United Nations last week, 31 governments will have ratified the ATT. For the treaty to come into effect, 50 states need to ratify the treaty.

“More governments need to sign and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty so that arms trading can finally be regulated and people currently at risk can be better protected,” Tveit said. He noted that the example set today should be followed by the United States and Russia – the two largest arms exporters – as well as China.

The WCC leads a campaign among its member churches to strengthen the proposed treaty and make it more effective. Work to secure ratifications continues, especially in Africa, one of the regions where irresponsible arms sales fuel human rights abuses and war crimes.

“Many lives will be saved if the Arms Trade Treaty enters into force and becomes really effective,” said Steve Hucklesby, policy adviser of The Methodist Church in Britain, a WCC member church.

“But the job is not yet finished. Those who pressed governments to commit to the treaty will need to remain vigilant and call for its full implementation.”

At the recent WCC assembly in South Korea, church delegates from more than 100 countries called for their governments to ratify and implement the Arms Trade Treaty.

Armed violence and conflict kills approximately half a million people each year. Weapons are also used to displace, abuse and traumatise millions more.

[Ekk/3]

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Prominent Methodist leader announces decision to move on

Sun, 2014-04-06 23:56

The General Secretary of the Methodist Church and Secretary of the Methodist Conference has announced his intention to step down from his current post in August 2015.

The General Secretary of the Methodist Church and Secretary of the Methodist Conference has announced his intention to step down from his current post in August 2015.

The Rev Dr Martyn Atkins shared this news at a meeting of the Methodist Council on Saturday 5 April in Leamington Spa.

Dr Atkins came to the job from being a senior lecturer and then principal at Cliff College, the Methodist training institution. He is a noted missiologist, looking at the purpose and engagement of the church in the contemporary world.

He declared: “I will be leaving my current post as Secretary of the Conference and General Secretary at the end of the next Connexional year, 2014-15. I have requested the permission of the President of the Conference to this effect, and she has kindly agreed. By that time, God willing, I will have served in this appointment for seven years, and will have reached the age of 60, enabling me to offer a handful of years to a further appointment of some sort prior to retirement.

"My decision has been made over a period of time, in a spirit of prayerful discernment and arising from conversations with a small number of people, not least my wife, Helen.

“Many months of hard work still lie ahead and the Council can be assured that I intend to continue to undertake my responsibilities as best I can and with integrity, vigour and passion: indeed there may well now be an even greater sense of urgency about my work in relation to those issues about which I believe progress and transformation is critical to the life of our Connexion at the present time.

"This work will continue to be enabled by my close colleagues who are among the finest and hardworking people it has been my pleasure to know, and to whom the Connexion and this Council should rightly be proud and care for.

“It has been – and will remain for some time yet – a deep privilege to serve Christ, among the people called Methodists and beyond, through this significant appointment," Dr Atkins concluded.

“There will be an appropriate time for tribute and reflection,” added Connexional Secretary Doug Swanney, “but for now I hope that people will join with us in praying for Martyn and Helen as they take the next steps on their journey of discipleship. We are hugely grateful for Martyn’s faithful service to the Church and look forward to seeing what more he will bring in the final year of his work in this role.”

[Ekk/3]

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Senate Select Committee on Intelligence votes to declassify CIA torture report

Sun, 2014-04-06 20:49

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) has voted to declassify their report on the CIA’s unlawful torture programme.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) has voted to declassify their report on the CIA’s unlawful torture programme. Abdelhakim Belhadj, a Libyan anti-Gaddafi dissident who was rendered and tortured – along with his pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar – in a CIA-MI6 operation in 2004, (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20369) expressed his relief at the decision.

Mr Belhadj said: “My wife and I welcome the decision to declassify this report. She and I were tortured at a CIA black site in Bangkok before being shipped to one of Gaddafi's most notorious prisons. At the time my wife was several months pregnant. We have promised one another not to rest until we find justice - not for vengeance' sake, but for the sake of the new democracy we fought so hard for.”

The couple were detained in China in February 2004 and flown to Bangkok, where they were held by US agents. Ms Boudchar, despite her pregnancy, was chained to a wall and later taped tightly to a stretcher, blindfolded and hooded. Mr Belhadj was held in a ‘black site,’ where he was repeatedly beaten, hung from the wall and subjected to sleep deprivation.

Eventually, both were ‘rendered’ to Gaddafi’s Libya where Mr Belhadj, as an opponent of the dictator, faced years of imprisonment and torture.

The couple’s case came to light after correspondence between Sir Mark Allen, then a senior MI6 officer, and Colonel Gaddafi’s spy chief was found following the 2011 Libyan revolution. In it, Sir Mark refers to the US part in the operation, saying “I know I did not pay for the air cargo,” but emphasising that the "the intelligence on [Mr Belhadj] was British.” Belhadj is taking legal action against the UK Government over their part in his illegal rendition to Libya in 2004, claiming complicity in his torture.

Reprieve US Counsel Alka Pradhan said: “We cannot learn from history unless we know what it is. It is well past time for the CIA to be held publicly accountable for its disastrous mistakes in the so-called 'War on Terror'. After years of CIA deceit, the White House must allow the American people to judge for themselves whether the crimes committed in our name were justified. President Obama can now deliver on his promise of transparency, by declassifying not only the Executive Summary but the full report into what went wrong at the CIA."

[Ekk/4]

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United Reformed Church nominates new general secretary

Sat, 2014-04-05 23:07

Following the resignation of the Rev Roberta Rominger in November 2013, the General Secretary Nomination Group of the United Reformed Church has been seeking her successor.

Following the resignation of the Rev Roberta Rominger in November 2013, the General Secretary Nomination Group of the United Reformed Church has been seeking her successor.

The nomination group, which is responsible for bringing a single name to the denomination’s General Assembly in July 2014, has now completed its work and is nominating the Rev John Proctor, currently vice-principal of Westminster College in Cambridge, to be the URC’s next general secretary.

If the URC General Assembly accepts the nomination, Mr Proctor will be inducted as general secretary on Sunday 6 July at the end of the gathering.

His term of office will therefore overlap with that of Mrs Rominger who will formally step down from the role on 31 July 2014.

John Ellis, moderator of the General Assembly and convener of the nomination group, explained: “After an extensive process of discernment the group was unanimous in sensing that God was calling John Proctor to this immensely challenging position. We hope that the Assembly will share that sense and that the whole Church will support him in their prayers.”

The United Reformed Church was formed in 1972 and today comprises approximately 80,000 adults and 42,000 children in approximately 1,500 congregations.

Its formation brought together English Presbyterians, English, Welsh and Scottish Congregationalists and members of the Churches of Christ.

Worldwide, more than 80 million Christians are members of the Reformed family of churches, the largest Protestant tradition. The name “Reformed” is used because the churches emerged out of the reform movements of the sixteenth century.

* More on the URC: www.urc.org.uk

[Ekk/3]

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UN envoy congratulates Afghan voters for taking part in 'historic' elections

Sat, 2014-04-05 21:41

As voters across Afghanistan cast their ballots in the presidential and provincial council elections, the top UN official there congratulated them for participating in a “historic moment”.

As voters across Afghanistan braved inclement weather and security threats to cast their ballots in today's (5 April) presidential and provincial council elections, the top United Nations official there congratulated them for participating in this “historic moment” for the country.

“Today was a good day for the future of a stable and unified Afghanistan. Ordinary Afghans turned out to vote in remarkable numbers, defying Taliban attacks and threats,” the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ján Kubiš, said in a statement.

“Often in long queues and bad weather, voters patiently waited to exercise their basic human right to vote. They chose to determine the future direction of the country by political means and resolutely rejected the enemies of peace and democracy,” he added.

Afghans thronged to polling stations, which opened their doors at 7:00 am today, to cast their ballots for a successor to President Hamid Karzai and members of 34 provincial councils. The polls will result in the first democratic transfer of power from one elected leader to another in the country.

During a visit to a polling centre in the capital, Kabul, Mr. Kubiš, had voiced the hope that people would come out and vote for their candidates – whoever they may be – in good numbers. “I hope that at the end of the day, we will be able to say this is really a historic moment, opening a totally new chapter for the country.”

Shukria, a resident of Kabul, expressed her hopes for the country's next leader. “I want my next president to improve security, creating a better environment for us to live in, as well as bring a higher standard of education to the country.”

According to Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC), polling took place in 6,212 polling centres across the country, while a further 250 polling centres – that were originally scheduled to be kept open – were closed down due to the failure to dispatch necessary polling materials in light of adverse security developments.

“I am hopeful for the future – I have lots of children and I vote for the future of my children,” said 70-year-old Haji Awlia Qul, in the north-eastern province of Kunduz. “It doesn't matter even if I die for this. The important thing is the bright future of my children. I vote for their better future and for the well-being of my grandchildren.”

Unlike the country's previous elections, which were conducted jointly by the Afghan authorities and the UN, the world body does not formally have a role in these polls, leaving Afghan authorities to organise and manage the entire electoral process.

The UN – primarily through the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) – has been advising on election-related matters and providing capacity building and technical support.

[Ekk/4]

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CIA torture victim calls for declassification of Senate report

Fri, 2014-04-04 09:56

Ahead of a US Senate vote over whether to declassify a major report on CIA torture, one of the Agency’s victims has called for the “open acknowledgement of past wrongs.”

Ahead of a vote in the US Senate over whether to declassify a major report on CIA torture, one of the Agency’s victims has called for the “open acknowledgement of past wrongs.”

Abdelhakim Belhadj, a Libyan anti-Gaddafi dissident who was ‘rendered’ and tortured – along with his pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar – in a joint CIA-MI6 operation in 2004, has expressed his hope that the report will be declassified.

The couple’s case came to light after correspondence between Sir Mark Allen, then a senior MI6 officer, and Colonel Gaddafi’s spy chief was found following the Libyan revolution. In it, Sir Mark refers to the US part in the operation, saying “I know I did not pay for the air cargo,” but emphasising that the "the intelligence on [Mr Belhadj] was British.”

The couple were detained in China in February 2004, and subsequently flown to Bangkok, where they were held by US agents. Ms Boudchar, despite being pregnant at the time, was chained to a wall, and later taped tightly to a stretcher, blindfolded (also using tape) and hooded – which caused her to fear for the health of her baby. Meanwhile, Mr Belhadj was held in a ‘black site,’ where he was beaten on multiple occasions, hung from the wall by chains and subjected to sleep deprivation by being blasted with loud music.

Eventually, both of them were ‘rendered’ to Gaddafi’s Libya where Mr Belhadj, as an opponent of the dictator, faced years of imprisonment and torture.

Commenting ahead of today’s vote, Abdelhakim Belhadj said: “My wife and I very much hope this report will be declassified, so the American people can read the truth about the terrible mistakes made in their name. America and Britain are essential partners for the new Libya - but only if we openly acknowledge past wrongs can we move forward together as friends.”

Mr Belhadj and Ms Boudchar, with the support of legal charity Reprieve, are bringing a case against the UK Government over its part in their mistreatment – which is also being investigated by London’s Metropolitan Police.

Reprieve Strategic Director, Cori Crider said: “All Mr Belhadj and Ms Boudchar have asked is that the governments who kidnapped and tortured them admit what they did and apologise for it. Instead, the UK Government fought to throw their case out of court, on the grounds that it might embarrass the US. But this fig-leaf will finally drop – let us hope for good – once the US Senate votes to release its own report on CIA torture. Both the US and UK governments should come clean right away about their part in this dark episode of the ‘war on terror.’"

[Ekk/4]

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Real term government cuts leave families up to £450 worse off

Fri, 2014-04-04 09:46

Years of real-terms cuts to child benefit, statutory maternity, paternity and adoption pay will leave expectant and new parents up to £450 a year worse off, says the TUC.

Years of real-terms cuts to child benefit, statutory maternity, paternity and adoption pay will leave expectant and new parents up to £450 a year worse off – enough to buy a year’s supply of nappies, baby wipes and babygrows, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) says today (4 April), ahead of the annual increase in benefits on Sunday.

The four key benefits for expectant and new parents – statutory maternity pay (SMP), statutory paternity pay (SPP), statutory adoption pay (SAP) and child benefit – are going up by one per cent this Sunday (6 April), but this is a real-terms cut as the cost of living (as measured by RPI inflation) is rising by 2.7 per cent.

This is the fourth successive real-terms cut in the value of these benefits, which before 2011 used to increase in line with RPI inflation every year, says the TUC.

From tomorrow SMP, SPP and SAP will be worth £138.18 a week – £7.87 a week less than if they had increased in line with RPI inflation since 2011. The same day child benefit increases to £20.50 a week for the first child and £13.55 for each additional child – which are effectively real-terms cuts of £3.24 and £2.14.

A working couple having a child in the next financial year (2014/15) will be £275 worse off if they take their full entitlement to SMP (which includes 33 weeks at the flat rate) and two weeks of SPP. They could also lose up to £168 in child benefit, bringing the total loss for expectant and new parents to nearly £450 – enough for a year’s supply of nappies, wipes and babygrows.

The income loss for better-off parents will be even greater as couples where one parent earns £50-60,000 will also have to pay the child benefit higher income charge. Those earning over £60,000 are no longer entitled to child benefit and could be £1,341 worse off next year (2014/15).

The TUC is concerned that as all these key family-friendly benefits will be subject to the government’s welfare cap, their value will continue to wither away. The TUC wants the government to restore the real-terms value of family-friendly benefits to give new parents the extra financial support they need from the welfare state.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “New babies are wonderful – but they can also be expensive, as any parent can attest. That’s why it’s important we protect the real value of family-friendly benefits to give new parents the help they need to buy baby essentials.

“Statutory paid leave for working mums and dads has the additional benefit of helping them to take time off to spend with their baby – without fear of losing their jobs.

“But family-friendly benefits have come under stealth attack in every Budget since mid-2010. Successive years of real-terms cuts will leave expectant and new parents up to £450 worse off this year – enough to buy a year’s supply of nappies, wipes and babygrows."

She concluded: “The government’s welfare cuts may be popular with people who think that they will never be affected themselves. But every parent expecting a baby next year should remember that they will be victims of the Chancellor’s plan to get rid of the social security safety net.”

[Ekk/4]

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New Church of Scotland moderator designate announced

Thu, 2014-04-03 11:42

The Church of Scotland has named the Rev John Chalmers as Moderator Designate to take office at the 2014 General Assembly of Scotland's largest Presbyterian Christian denomination.

The Church of Scotland has named the Rev John Chalmers as Moderator Designate to take office at the 2014 General Assembly of Scotland's largest Presbyterian Christian denomination.

Mr Chalmers will take the place of the Rev Dr Angus Morrison who earlier had to stand down due to ill health.

The Committee to Nominate the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland "met in extraordinary circumstances" on 2 April 2014 to consider the situation, the Kirk reported.

The Rev John Chalmers, who is the longstanding Principal Clerk to the General Assembly, is well placed to take on the role of Moderator at short notice.

Mr Chalmers said; “It is an unexpected privilege and a real honour to be entrusted with this role at this time. If the Assembly supports my nomination, I will seek above all else to hold the people of the Church of Scotland together in peace and unity.”

Addressing the urgent challenges that face the Church, the new Moderator Designate went on to say: “My focus will be on those things that unite us. Within the Church we have to learn to live with our differences. We have an urgent need to recruit women and men to train to be ministers and it’s time to let society know that there is something very meaningful about living the life of faith.”

He continued: “Women and men of Christian faith have motives, values and a sense of meaning that should be among the life choices which are seriously discussed in the public square.”

Referring to the challenges beyond the Church he said “The Church has to be an instrument of healing and reconciliation in post-referendum Scotland.” He promised to “champion the right of the most disadvantaged both at home and abroad.”

“I will want to tell the story of a Church which cares about the values by which Scotland lives, which cares about the conditions in which people live and which puts its money where its faith is, in the work it does amongst the most vulnerable and marginalised.”

Mr Chalmers, aged 61, whose older sister June had Down’s Syndrome, has spent most of his life supporting the work of Enable; for twenty years he was a member of the Board of Donaldson’s, the National School for the Deaf and in his Moderatorial year he hopes to visit many special needs facilities because he believes that some of the greatest works of service are done by people who do not get enough affirmation or public recognition.

In 2011 his youngest son John-James was injured in Afghanistan while serving with the Royal Marines. Mr Chalmers says at that time they experienced the Church as a healing and supportive community. In a society in which so many people are friendless and lonely, Mr Chalmers hopes that in his role as Moderator he will be able to encourage people to find faith, friendship and the spirit of Christ in the community of the local Church.

Mr Chalmers, who was born in Bothwell, South Lanarkshire and attended Marr College in Troon, now lives with his wife Liz in Dunfermline, Fife. The couple, who have three children and three grandchildren, have been immersed in Church work for most of their lives.

Mr Chalmers began by studying chemical engineering at Strathclyde University before transferring to Glasgow University to embark on a degree in divinity.

During the early eighties he was a minister in Renton Trinity Parish in West Dunbartonshire.from 1986-1995 he was the minister at Palmerston Place Church in the West End of Edinburgh.

These contrasting parishes gave him a breadth of understanding of the challenges facing the Church, says the Kirk.

[Ekk/3]

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MPs call on UN to monitor human rights in Western Sahara

Thu, 2014-04-03 09:39

The UN Security Council must extend the mandate of the peacekeeping mission to Western Sahara to monitor and protect human rights, an all-party group of British MPs said today.

The UN Security Council must extend the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission to Western Sahara so that it can monitor and protect human rights, an all-party group of British MPs said today (3 April)

The call comes in the report of the first ever British parliamentary delegation to the Occupied Territory of Western Sahara, released two weeks before the UN Security Council’s scheduled debate on the issue.

The delegation of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Western Sahara visited the Occupied Territory of Western Sahara from 13 to 16 February 2014, and heard of a sustained pattern of human rights violations suffered by the indigenous Saharawi people at the hands of the occupying Moroccan forces.

The delegation consisted of Jeremy Corbyn MP (Labour), Mark Williams MP (Liberal Democrat), John Gurr, coordinator of the Western Sahara Campaign, and John Hilary, executive director of War on Want.

The delegation also heard from the head of the UN peacekeeping mission to Western Sahara, MINURSO, that his staff are unable to monitor or report on human rights violations until so mandated by the Security Council.

The delegation witnessed first hand the Moroccan police’s suppression of the right to peaceful assembly when uniformed and plainclothes officers attacked demonstrators calling for the MINURO mandate to be extended.

The UN Security Council will meet on 17 April 2014 to discuss the situation in Western Sahara and to debate a proposal to extend MINURSO’s mandate to include the monitoring and protection of human rights.

Jeremy Corbyn MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Western Sahara, said: “The people of the Western Sahara have been under occupation since 1975; there is an enormous and repressive police and army presence, and 100,000 remain in refugee camps in the desert in Algeria. MINURSO has a mandate to keep the ceasefire and prevent war; this must be extended to examine and represent all aspects of human rights affecting the Western Sahara, including the camps in Algeria. For too long the injustice has been ignored and it is time to act.”

[Ekk/4]

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Bereaved Yemenis speak at launch of drone victims' organisation

Thu, 2014-04-03 09:31

People bereaved by US drone strikes in Yemen have aunched an organisation supporting affected communities and highlighting the civilian impact of the "targeted killing" programme.

A group of people who have lost loved ones to US drone strikes in Yemen yesterday (3 April) launched a national organisation, which will support affected communities and highlight the civilian impact of the "targeted killing" programme.

The National Organisation for Drone Victims (NODV), which is the first of its kind, has been founded by Mohammad al-Qawli, an Advisor to the Ministry of Education. Mr al-Qawli lost his brother, a primary school-teacher, in a January 2013 drone strike in Khawlan near Sanaa. The Yemeni government itself confirmed that Ali al-Qawli didn't have any connection with militants.

At the launch, Mr al-Qawli said: "Today we commemorate the civilians killed by US drone strikes and the scores of innocent people who are terrorised by drones every day. My brother Ali was a primary school teacher - he was not a terrorist; he dedicated his life to children's education. This event is an opportunity to bring ordinary people together to stand shoulder to shoulder to send a peaceful message to the US and Yemeni administrations. We hope that by us coming together the world will sit up and listen to the voice of the Yemeni people."

Families of victims from seven different strikes in five different provinces attended the launch. Many brought personal items belonging to their deceased loved ones. Among the belongings were including the stethoscope of a doctor who had been killed while treating another drone victim. The event also highlighted a December 2013 strike which hit a wedding party in Radaa. Faisal bin Ali Jaber spoke about his brother-in-law – an imam who preached against Al-Qaeda – and nephew who were killed in an August 2012 strike.

The event comes within days of Yemen’s President Hadi expressing regret that the drone strikes have killed innocent civilians, while continuing to express his support for the use of drones in Yemen. The Yemeni Parliament recently passed a resolution criminalising drone strikes. The past year has seen a surge of drone strikes, with as many as eleven taking place in the first few months of 2014 alone.

Kat Craig, Legal Director of Reprieve, said: "It is outrageous that President Hadi is willing to let his own people die because of a covert and counterproductive program run by the US’ secret service. The evidence is clear: drones kill innocent civilians, terrorise populations and are used as a recruitment tool by Al Qaeda.”

[Ekk/4]

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World Autism Awareness Day 2014

Wed, 2014-04-02 22:58
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Housing support cuts 'risk putting families into debt', says charity

Wed, 2014-04-02 22:53

The Children's Society has made a strong response to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee report on housing support in the reformed welfare system.

The Children's Society has made a strong response to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee report on housing support in the reformed welfare system.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, commented: “This report shines a spotlight on the damage that some of the government’s changes to housing support are causing many of the UK’s poorest children and families.

“Cuts to support for families renting their home and changes to the way rents are paid, threaten to put families – many that are already struggling to provide their children with the basics – into debt and, in some cases, risk homelessness.

“The government must act on the committee’s recommendations, including by monitoring whether these changes cause families to lose their homes, and by giving families the option of having their rent paid direct to their landlord.

“A decent, affordable home is not a luxury, it is a necessity. The government must make sure that none of its policies denies any child this basic right,” Mr Reed said.

The Children's Society works with families from all backgrounds, but has its roots in church philanthropy.

* The Children's Society: www.childrenssociety.org.uk

[Ekk/3]

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Methodist Church welcomes UK ratification of Arms Trade Treaty

Wed, 2014-04-02 22:47

The President of the Methodist Conference, the Rev Ruth Gee, says the Arms Trade Treaty is a "legal milestone that should help to protect those who are abused and oppressed".

Leaders of the Methodist Church in Britain have welcomed the UK Government's ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty on 2 April 2014.

The President of the Methodist Conference, the Rev Ruth Gee, said that the move was a "legal milestone that should help to protect those who are abused and oppressed".

"The Arms Trade Treaty has come about because, across the world, people have made their voices heard," said Ms Gee.

"They have spoken against the obscenity of the sale of arms to governments or groups who abuse rights and kill civilians. It's over ten years since the Methodist Conference called on the UK Government to support a global Arms Trade Treaty. We are convinced that trade and economic exchange must be grounded on the principles of justice and the dignity of every individual that lie at the heart of the Christian faith.

“The ratification of the treaty by the UK and other governments today is a legal milestone that should help to protect those who are abused and oppressed. But it's more than that. It makes clear that profiting from the sale of arms to oppressors is beyond a minimum standard of moral behaviour deemed acceptable in the 21st century. It also establishes the principle that the industry of arms production and sales should be accountable to the public,” she said.

Two years ago, as Churches across Britain were preparing to celebrate Peacemaking Sunday and the treaty was being negotiated, church leaders wrote to the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, urging him to press for agreement on a comprehensive and unambiguous text.

A former Methodist President, the Rev Dr Mark Wakelin, signed the letter on behalf of the Methodist Church.

Steve Hucklesby, Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church in Britain, commented: "The ratifications by the UK and other EU states today are important steps in the implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty. We need to see the treaty make a real difference to arms exports. Potentially, lives will be saved once the Arms Trade Treaty has been ratified by 50 States and formally enters into force. But even then the job is not yet finished.

"Those who pressed governments to commit to the treaty will need to remain vigilant and call for its application to all situations where people are oppressed,” he added.

* The Free Churches' Joint Public Issues Team position on the international Arms Trade Treaty dating back to 2004 can be seen here: http://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/lk_public_issues02-04.pdf?utm_medi...

* Control Arms Coalition - www.controlarms.org

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Background to the Arms Trade Treaty

Wed, 2014-04-02 22:39
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