The real poverty that exists on our very doorstep should shock us all. With 3.7million children living in poverty and three million people in the UK who are malnourished at any time, this issue must be a priority for us as a Church, as well as for the nation.
The General Election in May offers us the opportunity to judge how those seeking our vote will act for those most in need, how they will support the dignity of families and individuals with the opportunity to reach their full potential.
The very basics of security - a job and a home - are ever more at risk.
Employment is no longer insurance against poverty. Families were once able to rely on work to provide enough money to keep themselves afloat. Yet many families in work now have to turn to food banks and support from parishes and charities in order to get by. Half of all people in poverty live in a family where at least one member of the household is in work. This is a demonstration of the precariousness of work-places as people are dogged by low wages, inadequate hours, or exploitative zero-hour contracts which provide no security or predictability of income.
Meanwhile, there are deep-rooted problems with the housing market, most acutely felt in London, where many young families struggle to buy or even rent a home. The fact that 1 in 3 working parents say they have had to cut back on food in order to afford to pay for their home shows an injustice in society which should be challenged.
What is the Church doing to help? One of my roles as a Bishop is acting as the chair of Caritas Social Action Network [CSAN], the network of Catholic Charities and Dioceses which join together in mission, working with a range of people: children, those with disabilities; the old, refugees, those affected by prison and those who are homeless. This network, and the many other groups and individuals in our parishes, share an ethos of "caritas" - charity, love and justice. Underpinning this are the enriching principles of Catholic Social Teaching: human dignity, the common good, solidarity with the poor.
These principles help define our vision for society and lead us to act in two ways. First, in our collective charitable activities, which protect thousands of people and provide essentials such as food and shelter for those who fall on hard times. And secondly, we speak out on behalf of those who are in difficulties or whose situation is untenable. We attempt to demonstrate the impact of policies and work towards common solutions to the situations that prevent us from becoming fully human. We are particularly concerned about those who are trapped in a negative stereotype, such as unemployed people on benefits subjected to a "skiver" versus "striver" rhetoric. This not only paints a picture of a work-shy sector of benefit claimants which is simply not factual, but also forces divisions between working people and those unfortunately out of work, which for the vast majority is a temporary situation.
This countering of such perceptions can be seen in the way our churches and communities have reached out to welcome so many immigrants. People arriving in our countries are often desperate to escape danger, or simply committed to crafting a better life for themselves and their families. Yet our national narrative on this is at best confused, and at worst vehemently against such immigration. It would be a huge loss to our society if these workers did not come. But more importantly, we have to keep the human person in the front of our minds.
Practical examples of the work done in parishes and among charities include the story of the young woman who sought help from the Cardinal Hume Centre in London, having tried to find shelter in a hostel. At the Centre she had access to advice and food at a time when she was struggling to make ends meet. She said that the biggest difference was the boost to her confidence that came as a result of being treated with dignity and respect. She now has safe, stable and affordable accommodation, she is flourishing, and pursuing a career.
In my diocese of Middlesbrough, the John Paul Pastoral Centre has in recent years been transformed into a 'community hub' where volunteers from the diocese work with 'Together Middlesbrough', an Anglican Urban Fund Community Project. Other organisations that work for the vulnerable include Open Doors, the Methodist Refugee and Asylum support project, Positive Pathways from Homelessness, Investors in People and Cultures and Nightstop, a project to provide emergency shelter.
Working daily in the spirit of love and justice can make a difference to so many lives. So at the time of this General Election I invite you to draw upon the heritage of Catholic social teaching and action and use it to inform yourself about the way you want to live, the way you want your neighbours to live and the way you think our society should be going. At this election, we are called to transform our faith into action for positive change. Now is our opportunity to challenge the candidates to answer our questions on how they intend to respond to the pressing social issues affecting our families and the most vulnerable of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters in need.
Rt Rev Terence Drainey is the Bishop of Middlesbrough, chair of the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) Board of Trustees and has a national brief as a member of the Catholic Bishops' Conference Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship