Marriage Week UK

etpEach year, a group of Christian organisations in the UK aims to raise awareness of the importance of marriage through designating one week of the year as Marriage Week. It normally runs during the same week as Valentine’s Day and tries to gain some momentum from the popularity of that celebration. What surprised me was the claim on their website that marraige remains popular and that the divorce rate is static. Their website states:

Marriage remains incredibly popular – over 90% of young people in the UK aspire to be married at some point in the future, and the large majority will achieve this. Although the popular view is that marriages don’t last, two out of every three first marriages will last until one partner dies, and one in two second or subsequent marriages will also last a lifetime. The Divorce rate (the number of divorces per 1000 married couples) has remained virtually static since the early 1980’s. Continue reading “Marriage Week UK”

Banks, bonuses and camels

This week’s Friday Night Theology from Evangelical Alliance makes a very pertinent point. I quote it in full.

The Bible is not often quoted in Parliament. A Theos publication from 2007 showed that even Anglican bishops refer to Scripture only rarely in their contributions to House of Lords’ debates.

If that remains so, no-one seems to have told Labour MP John Mann. For it was he who, last Tuesday, halfway through a Treasury Select Committee grilling of Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays, dared to quote Jesus Christ himself.

“Can I ask you a philosophical question?” he began ominously. “Why is it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?” Diamond was stumped. This he had not expected. He paused, grinned, and looked around, before asking: “Do you have another question?”

Bob Diamond earns a lot of money (about £75m in the past five years). It is estimated that he is on track for an £8m bonus for 2010. He employs many people who earn similar figures. His bank, like many others, was bailed out by the taxpayer in 2008-09, the long-term effect of which is likely to be financial insecurity, joblessness, debt, and hardship for millions. Yet when the Conservative MP David Ruffley asked him whether he was grateful to the British public, gratitude was not exactly forthcoming. Mr Diamond may yet replace Sir Fred Goodwin as the public face of financial self-satisfaction and greed about which the British public rage remains white hot.

Much of the interrogation on Tuesday was technical and beyond the wit of most ordinary mortals. The fundamental argument for paying telephone-number bonuses – bonuses mind, not salaries – is that the City currently provides 20% of total national tax revenues. Government – we – cannot do without it, which means we cannot risk losing our best talent abroad, which is precisely what would happen if we capped or super-taxed bonuses.

Most of us cannot adjudicate confidently on the legitimacy of this argument (although there is surely a temptation to respond: “If this is the mess that the so-called crème de la crème of the banking world has got us into, I think we can risk losing that talent, don’t you?”). But the strength or otherwise of such arguments is not really the point. If questions of remuneration, profitability and staff retention were only ever technical issues, there would be no point in MPs (most of whom have minimal technical knowledge in this field) grilling bank execs, still less in recording and broadcasting it.

Underneath the technicalities of the issue, lies a moral landscape across which we all walk. We all of us have some idea of what is fair, what is just, “what is good”. And for most of us it looks very different to what we have seen in banking circles over recent years.

That is why Mr Mann’s question – from Jesus’ mouth – was so powerful. It cut through the fripperies of financial technicalities and exposed the raw, moral wound that lies beneath, and still hurts many people who could not hope to earn £8 million in a lifetime. Perhaps it is no surprise that that Daily Mail sketch writer Quentin Letts, who attended the session, remarked to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Mr Mann’s question was one of the few moments of his 2½ hour ordeal during which Mr Diamond looked genuinely disconcerted.

It is quite possible, in our largely biblically illiterate age, that Bob Diamond did not get the reference in Mr Mann’s question. Even if he had, he was wise not to answer it. Because the answer surely is that great wealth acts like a powerful magnet brought close to our moral compasses; it sends us into an ethical tailspin in which we become blind to who and what really is “good”, and lose sight and hope of eternal life.

PMS update

newsnormal12The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster, has published a helpful article in today’s Belfast Newsletter which outlines the road map for the next few months in getting towards a final resolution of the PMS crisis. This will reassure savers that progress is being made and that the issue is receiving good attention from DETI.

Along with other church representatives, I met with the Minister yesterday, and we had a good meeting as we reviewed progress and discussed what the next steps would be in bringing this saga to a good conclusion.

This is the third Christmas since the PMS crisis and, as the Minister observes, procuring the solution has taken a lot longer than we imagined. But the signs are hopeful. Here is the full text of Arlene’s article. Continue reading “PMS update”

PMS savers continue to wait

PMS savers will be interested to see the questions which were put by Leslie Cree MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly last week to Ms Foster, the Minister for Enterprise Trade and Investment with regard to the PMS. Clearly there is still some work to be done, although the First Minister, in spite of opposition, seems eager to get the budget approved before the Assembly goes for its Christmas recess next week.

What Ms Foster confirms is that the rescue package for the PMS is dependent on Executive, Assembly and EU approvals. That represents another series of hoops that need to be negotiated. We thought that having secured the support of the Treasury in making a loan available to the PMS that we were virtually home and dry. But not so!

We continue to wait, and my email in-box and post bag carries constant reminders of the anxiety and distress that this sad and tragic saga continues to inflict on PMS savers.

Mr L Cree asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment whether any collateral has to be provided against the UK Government’s loan to the Presbyterian Mutual Society. (AQW 2254/11)

Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: Northern Ireland’s Reinvestment and Reform Initiative borrowing facility will be increased by £175 million in 2011-12 to facilitate a loan to the PMS administrator. The terms and conditions of any loan assistance to be made available by the Executive to the administrator of the Presbyterian Mutual Society have not been finalised.

Mr L Cree asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when the £25 million pound from the UK Government and the Executive will be made available to the Presbyterian Mutual Society. (AQW 2255/11)

Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The Spending Review announcement on 20 October confirmed that the Government’s £25 million contribution to proposed Mutual Access Fund will be made available to the Executive in 2011-12. The Executive’s £25 million contribution to the Mutual Access Fund is subject to the Executive’s and Assembly’s agreement.

Mr L Cree asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when small savers with the Presbyterian Mutual Society will have access to their funds; and whether there is any intention to save the Society. (AQW 2256/11)

Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: It is proposed that Government and Executive funding for the establishment of a Mutual Access Fund and the orderly winding down of the Presbyterian Mutual Society will become available in 2011-12. The proposed solution is subject to Executive, Assembly and EU agreement.

Mr L Cree asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when she expects the Presbyterian Church to make its £1million contribution to the Presbyterian Mutual Society settlement. (AQW 2257/11)

Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: It has not yet been agreed when the Presbyterian Church will make a contribution to the proposed establishment of a Mutual Access Fund.

Mr L Cree asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline the time-scale for the completion of local and EU agreements to facilitate the resolution of the Presbyterian Mutual Society issue. (AQW 2276/11)

Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: Executive, Assembly, and EU agreement to the overall financial package will be required before DETI, acting on behalf of the Executive , puts its proposals to the administrator of the Presbyterian Mutual Society for agreement or otherwise by its members and creditors. H M Government and Executive funding will not become available until the 2011-2012 financial year. This will be progressed as quickly as possible, and the precise timings will become clearer as the implementation process is worked through.

PMS update

There was some discussion of the PMS crisis at the Assembly this week. Here’s what was said:

4. Mr Storey asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to outline the likely timescale for resolving the issues surrounding the Presbyterian Mutual Society.  (AQO 460/11)

The Minister of Finance and Personnel  (Mr S Wilson): The spending review, which was announced on 20 October, confirmed that the Government’s contribution to the proposed Presbyterian Mutual Society (PMS) solution will be available in the 2011-12 financial year. However, a number of local and EU agreements are required before payments can be made. Executive and Assembly agreement to the overall package can be secured as part of the Budget process. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) will take the lead on the Assembly legislation necessary to seek EU state aid approval for the loan. I hope that that work will be progressed as quickly as possible. We are working towards resolving all the issues for the 2011-12 Budget. However, I remind Members that any delay in establishing and agreeing the Budget will have a knock-on impact on the PMS solution.

Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for his answer about an issue that is of grave concern to a considerable number of people in Northern Ireland. One of the outstanding matters is that of small investors. Will the Minister outline today what further steps can be taken to ensure that those investors get 100% of their moneys back?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: A lot of the Assembly’s attention has been focused on the small investors, who make up around 66% of those who have money in the PMS. Although we want to try to ensure that as much money goes back to all the investors as quickly as possible, most of the Members who have raised the issue in the Assembly have been particularly concerned about the small investors. What can be done to ensure that those investors get all their money back as quickly as possible? Obviously, the bigger the mutual access fund, the more money there will be to give to small investors. The Government at Westminster have put up £25 million, as have the Executive, and the Church has committed £1 million. Obviously, if the Church could provide additional money to increase that mutual access fund, there would be an ability to give much greater sums of money back to small investors.

Mr O’Loan: I am very keen that a fair solution be found for PMS savers, particularly, small personal savers, as the Minister and the Member who asked the question said, and long-term savers with the society. Nonetheless, does the Minister agree that the solution must be proper, fair and proportionate to all members of the community whom we serve and that it must reflect the Assembly and the Executive’s position vis-à-vis that of the Treasury? Does he also agree that there have to be concerns about what is in the public arena on the potential risk to the Assembly, the Executive and their future finances?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: From the question, I am not too sure whether the Member is supportive of sorting out the PMS issue or whether he is actually trying to throw objections into the pot. Maybe we will get some clarification about that from his party at some stage. On the one hand, it appears publicly to support the savers, but, on the other hand, it seems — by the tone and nature of that question— to raise some doubt about whether that should be done.

I assure the Assembly that we have gone through a long process with the Treasury. It has looked closely at the figures for the liabilities, the value of the assets and what is likely to be raised from those assets over a 10-year period. The indications are that the £175 million loan that we will take out, which will not impact on the capital programme for the Assembly as it will be over and above what we have been allowed to raise through loans for capital projects, will be not only serviced but paid back. From the surplus, we will be able to reimburse the money that will be put up for the mutual access fund. That is the intention. The quicker the property market picks up, the quicker that money can be paid back. It is on that basis that we have proceeded.

Since it was a question asked by a DUP member to a DUP Minister, it is clear that the Minister wanted to say something. I believe he is making three points:
1. So long as the Assembly delays in arriving at an agreed budget, the resolution of the PMS situation will be delayed.
2. The more money the church contributes to the Mutual Access Fund, the more there will be for smaller savers. The General Assembly has pledged £1 million and has, as yet, not been asked to increase its contribution.
3. The Northern Ireland Executive is not making a gift of £25 million to the rescue package but are planning to have any contribution to the Mutual Access Fund reimbursed to them.
These issues will undoubtedly cause some debate and discussion among PMS savers. There is so much to be said, but most savers are hoping that soon all the hurdles will be surmounted and a resolution will be arrived at. The pain and anxiety has gone on far too long.