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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, October 17, 2006
    The truthful, expert voices

    I'm holding in my hand a slim document, produced on unsexy glossy paper and unexceptional in design. But it's one of the most powerful publications I own. It's the record of the Liverpool Poverty Hearing which took place just days before the 1997 General Election. In a time of heightened political attentiveness, the first real opportunity in eighteen years for a change in goverment, a time of promise especially for those marginalised by the morally bankrupt and decaying Tory regime, the Hearing was very well attended.

    On that occasion, held in a Friends Meeting House now demolished to make way for Earl Grosvenor's fancy shopping malls, eight people with direct experience of living in real poverty in Liverpool were courageous enough to share their stories with an audience of the city's decision-makers and parliamentary candidates. The truthful, expert voices were for once able to be heard.

    Karen from Norris Green spoke of the pain of having to face leaving Liverpool to gain meaningful work and move out of the poverty trap she was in; Barabra from Everton suggested that poverty now was worse than in earlier generations because of an increase in social isolation; Matt from Everton spoke of life on invalidity benefit - no cinema, no books, no means to make provision for long term illness - and asked, 'do I have to live in poverty all my life?'; Jo, a graduate unable to find work, described life on £44 a week; Dawn from Kirkdale, a mother of four, her partner on a wage just £1 above unemployment benefit, described the pain of being unable to provide properly for her young ones; Ann, homeless through a series of events linked to her estranged husband's violence against her, said she'd be dead if she'd stayed with him and asked, 'Why, because I chose to stay alive for the sake of my children, should I be forced to live a life in poverty?' and Eric from Everton explained the 'benefit trap' he and his wife were in because of her low income job.

    This event came about because a few months before Church Action on Poverty had organised a National Poverty Hearing in London. I went to that, and was moved on my return home to convene a group which gelled and, energised by the model of enabling and preparing people with direct experience of poverty - the real experts - to have the platform to 'speak truth to power', we got the Liverpool Poverty Hearing together.

    Merseyside and Region Church Action on Poverty has been going ever since. In the intervening years members have continued their campaigning, carried on organising events of these kinds. Some of our grassroots people have been involved in parliamentary consultations and face-to-face meetings with ministers. And - because it has been a listening government at times - these consultations and meetings have helped forge some genuinely positive policy change.

    Some of us may be going to the tenth anniversary National Poverty Hearing in London on 6 December. And today we gathered for a modest soup lunch, followed by a simple sharing of bread and wine, to mark the World Day to Overcome Extreme Poverty and to start making plans for another city centre conference in 2007.

    Informing our 1997 event was the newly-published church report on Unemployment and the Future of Work: An Enquiry for the Churches. Commissioned by Bishop David Sheppard it had a Liverpool edge to it. I remember sitting next to the Bishop of Hereford feeling proud, a little awkward, and tickled by the glorious incongruity of the situation, underneath a massive photograph of Duncan Ferguson in the Goodison Park suite at the report's launch. Today we have the worthy but more flaccid Faithful Cities. Compromised by its shameful insistence on using the language of capital to describe the activity of faith, nevertheless Faithful Cities asks some good questions, the most promising one being, 'What makes a good city?'

    Tonight I'm left holding this report from a decade ago and wondering how Karen, Barabra, Matt, Jo, Dawn, Ann and Eric would answer that. Sadly Eric passed away not long after our initial event; I'm unsure where most of the others are. But Matt is still soldiering on despite debilitating illness, and still asking hard questions of the powerful (I know this because he confronted me - now a figure of clerical 'authority' - with a tricky question part way through a service I was leading earlier this year). Extreme poverty has not been overcome and, left to overblown pop stars, campaigning against it is diminished; poverty close to home exists as cruelly as it ever has. Our campaigning group hasn't given up, and despite now being dangerously closer to the compromises of power than I was a decade ago I hope that I'll never lose the intention to listen, fully hear, and respond appropriately to what those truthful, expert voices are saying.