‘I believe that meeting for worship has brought the same awareness to all who have seen and understood the message that everyone is equal in the sight of God, that everybody has the capacity to be the vessel of God’s word. There is nothing that age, experience and status can do to prejudge where and how the Light will appear. This awareness – the religious equality of each and every one – is central to Friends. Early Friends understood this and at the same time they fully accepted the inseparable unity of life, and spoke against the setting apart of the secular and the sacred. It was thus inevitable that religious equality would be translated into the equality of everyday social behaviour. Friends’ testimony to plain speech and plain dress was both a testimony of religious equality and a testimony of the unacceptability of all other forms of inequality.’
Ursula Franklin, 1979 – from QF&P 23.32
The testimony to equality is an essential part of Quakerism for me. The conviction that we are all equal – in the sight of God and therefore in the sight of each one of us – is where it all starts.
Because we believe in that of God in everyone there is no rational way to argue that we are anything other than equal.
So what does this require of us today?
It means that we treat everyone with the same respect. That means that we don’t go around vilifying people because of the social class or group they belong to. It means engaging with each person we meet as an individual and expect him or her to do likewise.
It means that we do not accept policies imposed by our government – at whatever level of government – that significantly undermine the ability of some people to fully participate in society; i.e. policies that diminish people.
In the last few days, Catholic and Anglican clergy, Methodist and URC leaders and representatives of Britain YM (and I am so immensely proud to know that BYM participated in this) raised their serious concerns with government policies that drive people into poverty.
Being forced to feed yourself and your family from a food bank – as well meaning as food banks are – is diminishing people. It means that they are not able to participate fully in a society based on the ability of at least most people to earn their own living, to support themselves and those they that are dependent on them.
And then, today, there is a story in the Guardian that suggests that people who have benefits withdrawn and want to challenge that decision may have to pay charges to bring such appeals.
Equal access to the law, equal access to justice is another fundamental pillar of a society that regards people as equal. And to remove access to justice on the basis of ability to pay from people who by definition are amongst the poorest, is cynical and very close to evil in my book.
So at this point this is just a leak of an internal document from the Department of Works and Pensions; in my view it is a cynical fishing expedition the government is on. They float such ideas and gauge the public response. If we all just glaze over and don’t respond, they’ll bring in this new rule on the quiet wrapped up in some piece of legislation that looks innocuous. If there is an outcry, they’ll drop it and say it was just the random musings of some civil servant.
Well, let’s call there bluff. Let’s tell them what we think about this.
Testimony is about speaking and acting our truth. Let’s make our testimony to equality stand up to scrutiny on this issue. We have to draw a line somewhere.
So here’s what I have just written to my Member of Parliament:
This morning, I read with some disquiet a piece in the Guardian which suggests that the Department of Works and Pensions is considering requiring benefit claimants to pay a charge for appealing against sanctions decisions.
Given that the article further reveals that since 2010 the proportion of successful appeals has been 58% (as compared to 20% before 2010), then this means that people who have a very good cause for challenging an administrative decision which very often will lead to them going hungry and being at risk of losing their home will be prevented from doing so for financial reasons.
These are – by definition – among the poorest in society. Preventing access to justice to people in this situation is morally wrong and politically cynical.
I appreciate that this is – as yet – not government policy; it is a leaked document that is floating this idea; no doubt, the leak has been engineered to gauge public opinion. And that is the reason I am writing to you now: please note that I am wholly and unequivocally opposed to any such measure being brought in at any point.
Please make sure that your party uses its position within the Coalition to prevent this idea from going any further. Please communicate this view to Ian Duncan-Smith on my behalf.
Thank you for your assistance in this matter. I do appreciate all the hard work you do and all the support you give to your constituents (like me) in making our views heard by government.
If you are a UK citizen, I invite you to write to your MP in a similar vein.