Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow


By Jo Thompson, External Affairs Manager, women@thewell (CSAN member charity)

On 8 March 2022 we mark International Women’s Day with the theme “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”.

The definition of gender equality is, ‘the state in which access to rights and opportunities is unaffected by gender’.

It is important to keep in mind the collective hard work and commitment of women and men who work to rectify inequality, with faith that one day we will achieve true gender equality in the world and a fairer, more just society for women and girls. On International Women’s Day, we reflect on the incredible achievements of women and girls around the world, day after day, week after week, year after year, against all odds. As we emerge from a global pandemic, the full impact of which we have still to comprehend, the need for gender equality is at the forefront of many minds.

Trauma informed support and exit services such as women@thewell understand all too well the inequalities women face daily.  Women entrapped in the sex trade shine a stark light on inequality faced by women, leading to disadvantage, exploitation and abuse. 

CSAN England and Wales Caritas Catholic social action
Picture credit: Claudia Clare

In our daily support service provision, focusing on breaking down the barriers to exiting prostitution, gender equality is the beating heart of our organisation. Demanding more for women, a life to flourish and grow, with choices which come from a place of freedom instead of survival. Providing women with trauma informed advocacy and support to live a life free of exploitation, abuse and disadvantage. Overcoming each barrier levels the playing field and forms the building bricks to exit a life of oppression.

With a commitment to working towards full abolition of the sex trade, lobbying and campaigning for the introduction of legislation to protect women sold into prostitution and the wider sex trade remains high on the agenda for women@thewell. We believe that the only possible option to keep women safe and protected is by the introduction of a legal framework that sends a clear message – women are not saleable objects. In a world where prostitution exists, we will never achieve true gender equality. As Fiona Broadfoot, a survivor of internal human trafficking and prostitution says,

‘The UK needs to criminalise men who abuse women through prostitution because it is the demand creates the supply. Without demand from these men there would be no supply of vulnerable women and girls to be bought and sold.’

Experience delivering frontline services indicates strongly that the abolitionist model, alongside provision of holistic exiting services, is essential to break down barriers and enable women to exit prostitution. Shaping a society in which commercialised, one-sided sexual gratification has no place.

During the pandemic, women@thewell and Dr Pat Jones collaborated on a research paper listening to the voices of women entrapped in the sex trade, as well as some of the professional staff who provide support services. The resulting report is unusual in that it is not primarily focused on the facts of the women’s situations, but with how the women make sense of their lives. In particular, it reflects on what freedom means in their own lives and on issues such as safety, survival and solidarity. Listening to the women’s voices enabled an understanding of the damage done by prostitution as a tolerated social structure. The women’s voices are full of anguish, courage, resilience and morality. The report will launch during the sixty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women taking place from 14 to 25 March 2022. More details will follow on our website.

The research had a dual aim – to listen to the women and amplify their insights and stories, while also bringing them into dialogue with Catholic Social Teaching, and theological and political ethics. The report touches lightly on how CST principles inform that dialogue, but also draws on valuable resources from social sciences and other sources.

These are among the women’s voices that society must listen to, in order to effect true progression and change leading to gender equality.

This International Women’s Day let us celebrate together the women we know, and the women we have yet to meet, in the knowledge that on a small or large scale they all achieve great feats.

The views expressed in this blog are not a statement of CSAN policy.

Asylum detention: A weight of responsibility


On the feast of St Josephine Bakhita (8 February), William Neal, Detention Outreach Officer at JRS UK (CSAN member charity) reflects on what it means to accompany those who are held in detention.

Often when describing JRS’s mission to accompany refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, the emphasis is placed on the simple act of being present – of being with rather than doing for. Listening, without judgement and without an agenda, allows us to be open to any person sitting in front of us and to encounter them where they are in that moment. We come to know refugees as people with histories, skills and talents. Relationships are formed over time, and the team come to know refugees as friends, rather than clients or beneficiaries.

In listening to, and sharing in, a friend’s story we are left with a certain weight and certain responsibility. Those we accompany in detention, in Napier Barracks and in the community have faced immensely difficult challenges and times in their lives – lives which have forced them from their homes, separated them from family and involved perilous journeys to eventually end up in the UK – and they will carry a great deal of trauma. Sharing their story may bring to the surface pain which may have long been buried and can be a raw and emotional experience to re-live. In speaking to JRS it may be the first time they have felt able to share all or certain parts of their story, or they may have been required to re-tell it over and over again for various Home Office interviews, solicitor appointments and witness statements; reliving their traumatic past on multiple occasions. We leave carrying some of that emotional weight our friend has shared and, in doing so, we hope that in turn we have lifted some of that load from them.

We also leave with a weight of responsibility.

We carry with us the responsibility to serve our friends, to find the assistance they need in that moment to overcome some of the hardships they currently face. The responsibility to share their stories, to advocate for them and others facing a similar situation so that we can bring about change on an individual and systemic level. A responsibility to make others aware of the harsh reality our friends experience, often hidden from view, so that we become a more humane society that offers welcome to those who arrive in the UK to seek safety.

Repeated incidence of modern slavery

When I first joined JRS UK’s Detention Outreach team in 2019, we shared some of those stories when we were invited to give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee as part of their inquiry into modern slavery. We related the experiences of Vietnamese men we had accompanied in detention who had shared with us their stories of trafficking and exploitation in the UK. Stories of men who had become ensnared by trafficking gangs after leaving Vietnam on the promise of a better life, of stable employment and income that could be sent back to family they were having to leave behind. Of unknown journeys often tucked away in the back of lorries for days on end which eventually led to the UK. But rather than the opportunities for a better life they had been promised, they said they were taken to houses around the country, locked away, told to look after ‘houseplants’, no payment, no phone, no way out, and the threats of beatings or worse should they try to escape. Eventually our friends would be discovered in the cannabis farms by police, often alone. But instead of being provided with support that would bring an overdue end to their exploitation, they would be charged for drug production, found guilty by courts, convicted to months in prison before arriving in detention to be processed for deportation.

Despite a commitment by the UK to protect and support victims of modern slavery, these men had passed through many hands of a system that had not identified them as such.

At the time, there seemed a genuine willingness to change, such that potential victims of trafficking weren’t routinely detained. It was agreed that indefinite detention would re-traumatise individuals who had been exploited by traffickers, reminding them of the many years of captivity they may have already endured. It seemed sharing our friend’s story had helped to shine a light on this previously hidden issue.

However, the stories of Vietnamese men who have experienced trafficking and modern slavery have unfortunately continued to be a common occurrence in my time working with men in detention through the years.

In 2021 we supported 21 such men. Some shared very similar experiences as those we raised in 2019, others had been detained immediately after arriving in the UK and shared their stories of exploitation across China, Russia and Europe that may have continued in the UK. Even those identified as potential victims of trafficking and modern day slavery are no longer automatically considered for release as changes to the Adults at Risk policy, the policy designed to identify vulnerabilities in detention, has made it easier to maintain their detention. Unfortunately, things look set to only get worse as the UK Nationality and Borders Bill 2021 would bring in measures that I believe would make people seeking sanctuary more vulnerable to trafficking and modern slavery, make it harder to be identified as a potential victim and would penalise late disclosure.

St Josephine Bakhita, pray for us

On February 8 we commemorate St. Josephine Bakhita, Patron Saint for Victims of Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking. We take the opportunity to call to mind our friends in detention and all those who have experienced exploitation. We hold our friends in our thoughts and prayers that such exploitation should end, and ask for strength that through accompaniment we continue to fight for a system and society that listens without judgement to those who have experienced trafficking and slavery, and responds with support, not hostility.

The outlook may look dire but we continue our commitment to accompany those who have been forcibly displaced, who have been exploited in the UK or elsewhere, who have come to the UK in the search of safety.

The views in this blog post are not a statement of CSAN policy.

Napier Barracks


In January 2022, the Home Office ran a consultation on a Planning Statement in support of the continuation of a Special Development Order for a temporary change of use of Napier Barracks in Kent, which is currently being used as accommodation for asylum seekers, up to September 2026. Seeking Sanctuary (CSAN member) is closely involved with asylum seekers arriving in Northern France and Kent. Phil Kerton, founder director of Seeking Sanctuary, here shares his observations on the site and its current use.

I have visited Calais many times over the past 5 to 10 years, as a member of Seeking Sanctuary, and observed the impact of large numbers of exiles encamped around the town, needing supply of food, water, clothing, sanitation, waste disposal, worship spaces and shelter. Drawing on this experience, what can we say about the use of Napier Barracks as an accommodation centre for hundreds of asylum seekers?

The obvious solution is to close the Barracks as asylum accommodation with immediate effect, moving people to safe housing in communities where they can be granted some measure of dignity and start to become familiar with daily life in the UK.

Several reports during the first 17 months of operation have been extremely critical, although improvements appear to have been made in the past 6 months or so. These improvements mainly result from allowing local volunteers to enter the premises or to make contact via Zoom to provide some meaningful diversions to residents. Their efforts are essential alongside Home Office provision, but it is not clear how volunteers can be assured of access in the long term, given the seemingly arbitrary decisions sometimes handed down via the site management team.

My problem in commenting on the Planning Statement is that I doubt if many of my concerns about scrutiny of the quality and consistency of work by contractors and the scope of what they can achieve while keeping costs within a budget can validly be considered by a planning authority. However, we can live in hope, considering that we might reasonably expect the Home Office to check upon day-to-day operations more frequently and stringently than in the past. For example, it has taken many months for a start to be made at removing barbed wire from the fences and providing some cover to the wire netting to give a measure of privacy to those inside.

I consider that the ‘crisis’ in accommodating asylum seekers has mostly been caused by the Home Office’s tragically slow processing of claims, rather than by an excessive number of new arrivals. Recruitment and training of Home Office staff would cut the need for temporary accommodation and allow successful claimants to move on to more conventional stocks of dwellings.

Napier Barracks was run down by the Ministry of Defence for a number of years, never being fully occupied, but catering for small numbers of personnel attending brief training courses nearby. The Home Office failed to address faults in the building before moving people in, and until recently did little to robustly assure their upkeep. The continued use of Napier Barracks should be subject to additional conditions. For example:

  • The establishment of a proper building inspection and repair programme (for example for leaks, electrical wiring and fittings, plumbing, heating, doors and windows), to prevent further deterioration, reporting monthly on progress and subject to independent external scrutiny of thoroughness and quality.
  • Measures to alleviate the military- and prison-like ambience. Internal redecoration is essential if use is allowed to continue for more than a few months – again, with routine reporting of progress against planned actions and external scrutiny of quality. Previous comments suggested that redecoration was not worthwhile when initial consent was for only one year of operation.
  • Home Office assurance that its contractor’s senior staff on site do possess the experience and skills that are needed to run large-scale communal accommodation.
  • Rooms should be provided where confidential face-to-face and phone interviews can take place.
  • Maintaining the sporting facilities at a decent standard, whereby residents might play more sports against various local teams. Following its military adventures in and before the 19th century, Great Britain left a love of cricket in the Middle East, especially in Afghanistan, and village teams in the North of France have prospered by recruiting new citizens to their squads.

The Planning Statement does not provide actual figures for the duration of asylum seeker stays during recent use of the Barracks. It appears that only postulated targets have been provided, without any indication of their reality.

The Home Office should indicate if all the communal buildings and facilities listed in Section 3.4 of the Planning Statement are provided with appropriate services and suitably furnished, and what plans have been made to maintain these provisions and to rectify any faults. The Planning Statement also states that: “the site is in an area of High Risk of unexploded ordnance”. No measures are proposed to quantify and alleviate this risk or to plan for the possible eventuality of explosions.

The equality impact assessment accompanying the Planning Statement states that various “other improvements” have been put in place by the Home Office. Various reports have suggested that a good number of these are provided by local volunteers. If so, what plans are there to assure that they are sustained?

Traffic Assessments in various Appendices to the Planning Statement present lengthy reports of interesting data from various other locations, none of them involving large scale accommodation of asylum seekers, concentrated in one enclosure. Given that the Home Office has placed numerous people in the Barracks for many months and its contractors have monitored arrivals and departures, surely more directly relevant data can be presented and analysed?

The use of curtains to partly or wholly divide dormitory beds has been common. More solid and relatively airtight partitions should be provided everywhere, and the spacing of beds adjusted to reduce the probability of transmission of disease.

If, unhappily, the number of residents remains considerable, the numbers of usable washbasins, showers and toilets should be increased to reflect this fact.

The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s.

‘The Common Good’ 25 years on


Clive Chapman, Director of Mission, CSAN

St Mary’s University, Twickenham, organised a Study Day on 26 January 2022, marking 25 years since the publication of ‘The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching’ by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Technological advances since then made it possible for me to join the formal proceedings virtually, though social engagement space on this occasion was limited to those present physically in London. It was a great delight that CSAN and Catholic charities were much in evidence at the event; my own CEO, Raymond Friel, gave one of the speeches.

This was for me an anniversary celebration tinged with a little lament: what appeared to have been the principal public discussion on a Church document aimed at wider and deeper civic engagement, had become an academic matter, centred on leafy South-West London. Was this in itself a sign that voices from ‘the margins’, notably absent in the original document, were no more central to institutional discourse on Catholic public voice today? The day was, however, what it said ‘on the tin’, a study day – and quite reasonably an opportunity to promote higher studies. On another level, the university could be seen here taking on a role as a repository of professional knowledge – how such documents are developed, the challenges and how these are addressed, and why these documents are unusual/infrequent. This long view and experience is in short supply for work needed to form ‘concrete demands’ of Catholic domestic social action today, revealed particularly in the ongoing challenge of securing support for even basic national infrastructure, and levels of participation by Catholics under the age of around 50. The university setting was perhaps fitting for an independent critique of practice, but it would have been good to hear more from current practitioners on the state of current practice.

Why has it taken 25 years for the knowledge accrued by those working in 1996-97 to be transferred to today’s practitioners? Clifford Longley, the document’s author, revealed that he had been under a duty of confidentiality at the time, in his relationship with the Bishops’ Conference. He was now in a position to share some insights on the editorial, ecclesial and political contexts for the relative success of the document.

Pat Jones, the sole woman on the editorial group at the time, highlighted the unease and urgency that propelled action and eventual unanimous support for the document from the bishops in England and Wales (though not, as Clifford noted, without a backlash from the bishops in Scotland). However, she noted too the absence of experience of Catholic charities such as those in membership of CSAN. On reflection, the document now seemed to her cautious and moderate, perhaps reflecting the tone of global Catholic voice at the time on social concerns, and with relatively little reference to Scripture compared for example to Fratelli tutti.

For Clifford and Jon Cruddas MP, the document was timely, capturing the zeitgeist of a moment at which the impact of policies of a long Conservative administration (within wider forces of globalisation and distortions of capitalism) came under more intense questioning. Jon summarised a sense that public policy had been dominated by a ‘winner takes all’ approach to outcomes.

Pat pinpointed some of the challenges for the work of forming a Catholic public voice, both within Catholic ecclesiology and the messy process of dialogue in which the Spirit is active. An emphasis in the tradition on the see-judge-act/social action of individuals downplays the sociality of faith and importance of collective representation that are also characteristically Catholic. Pat praised the contributions of Catholic charities in innovating, expanding and discerning, but their collective impact was falling short on account of fragmentation. There remained insufficient infrastructure capacity to resource parishes to develop civic engagement. Pat helpfully challenged us all that without more attention to supporting these conversations, Catholics could struggle to make much more progress together as credible agents of change alongside others’ efforts. Francis Davis went further, in a withering assessment of most diocesan annual reports, that suggested to him a low priority in their structures and spending on the preferential option for the poor. I think that assessment failed to acknowledge the voluntary nature of most Catholic social action on the ground, which is also led in the main by women.

Pat also took issue with the lack of courage in some official statements – a dodging of the ‘concrete demand’ by staying in the comfortable realm of broad principles, while others had called for very specific policy changes (typically on issues overseas). Pat sensed that the focus of Catholic voice on domestic social concerns in recent years ‘has turned inward while people are suffering’, for example in social care; a national Catholic voice on social security reform is a particular gap. For Pat, this comes down in large part to how well policy work is resourced in national Catholic offices. This is one factor, but the relative energy directed into environmental and migration concerns in recent years, along with the research CSAN has sponsored on Catholic parishioners’ attitudes to social care, tell a different story about what is possible when the voices of religious congregations and a plenary resolution from the bishops are followed through into fresh action locally. As Pat noted, many of the bishops’ most powerful and specific statements were only possible because there was a policy specialist retained in the Conference to put them together.
Several speakers noted important Appendices to the document, ‘Catholic Resources’ listing examples of Catholic organised action, and suggestions to help discussion of the document in parishes. Raymond highlighted the priority for CSAN of gathering and communicating the story of Catholic social action today.

Bishop Richard Moth, Chair of the Department for Social Justice in the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, concluded the day by starting with a wide view. He recalled the enactment of Catholic social teaching over the last two centuries; the role of the Catholic Church in founding schools for the poor in the 19th Century; the quiet work of visiting people experiencing isolation undertaken by the SVP; the work of organisations such as Pact and the National Board of Catholic Women, and Catholic involvement in starting housing associations and credit unions. He emphasised the root of social action in the interior life and on the person of Christ. Without this rooting, social action becomes prone to pride and a distorted sense of service. He gave a great example of one man’s initiative and organising to help save a local market that would otherwise have been lost: the central place of local action.

Bishop Moth considered that there had been significant progress in bringing the fruits of Catholic thought and action into a positive influence on public affairs.

This blog post is not a statement of CSAN policy.

“Orange the world: End violence against women now!”


As we begin to emerge from a global pandemic, research and data is not yet able to fully measure its impact on the globe. However the UN have identified a shadow pandemic, formed with emerging data and reports from those working on the frontline with evidence that women and girls experiences of violence and exploitation have increased. 

This year the United Nations marks its 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence on the 25th of November until the 10th of December 2021, with its global theme set by the UN Secretary – General’s UNITE campaign is “Orange the World: “End Violence against Women Now”

The campaign sends a clear message that the mission is to see an end to violence against women and girls, and that the need is now. 

“The UK needs to criminalise men who abuse women through prostitution because its demand creates the supply. Without demand from these men, there would be no supply of vulnerable women and girls to be bought and sold.” 

Fiona Broadfoot
Survivor of International Trafficking and Prostitution

Women@thewell is a frontline provider of support and exiting services, based in London, supporting women, whose lives are affected by prostitution both on street and off street, including women who have been trafficked into the sex trade. 

As with data from the shadow pandemic, women@thewell identified trends across support services highlighting a demographic shift in those in need of our support, supporting women who pre pandemic would not have typically experienced exposure to exploitation in the sex trade. We believe this is a direct consequence of economic disadvantage, and that the women we supported through the pandemic shine a bright light of clarity on the links already identified in the sector- between economic disadvantage and exploitation and abuse. 

Our mission is to work towards full abolition of the sex trade, lobbying and campaigning around legislation that protects women. Now more than ever we believe this is the only way to keep women safe and protected. Under an abolitionist legal framework, society recognises that women are not saleable objects and should have choices, which come from a place of stability, not mere survival. 

As Fiona Broadfoot, a survivor of international trafficking and prostitution says, “The UK needs to criminalise men who abuse women through prostitution because its demand creates the supply. Without demand from these men, there would be no supply of vulnerable women and girls to be bought and sold.” 

Our experience delivering frontline services indicates strongly that this model, alongside provision of holistic exiting services – is essential to break down the barriers and enable women to exit prostitution. Shaping a society in which commercialised, one sided sexual gratification has no place. 

The UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, the only global grant-making mechanism dedicated to ending and preventing all forms of violence against women, has announced a special fundraising challenge, Give25forUNTF25, marking 25 years of grant-making to support women’s organisations around the world.We believe that female only support and advocacy services such as women@thewellplay an essential and imperative role in the fight against violence against women and girls. 

During the next sixteen days, we celebrate the hard work and commitment by individuals and organisations across the globe – who advocate for change and the end to violence against women each and every day. 

Jo Thompson 
External Affairs Manager 

International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women


By Jo Thompson, women@thewell (CSAN member charity)

25 November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls. On marking this day, we are together acknowledging the hard work and commitment of individuals and organisations across the globe, striving towards the end of violence against women and girls, and the creation of a world where women and girls can live a life free from exploitation, abuse and disadvantage.

As we begin to emerge from a global pandemic, the UN has identified a shadow pandemic, formed with emerging data and reports from those on the frontline with evidence that women and girlsexperiences of violence and exploitation have increased. There have long been links identified between economic disadvantage and violence against women and girls. It is therefore no surprise that a global pandemic, with new and unexpected economic disadvantage and change in circumstances, increased exploitation and abuse. For those for whom violence and exploitation was already their lived experience, choices significantly narrowed and for some women and girls the choice to live or die became a stark reality.

This year’s theme is Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect! amplifying the call for global action to bridge funding gaps, and ensure there is capacity to fund essential services for survivors of violence during the COVID19 pandemic crisis, with a focus on prevention, and collection of data that aims to improve lifesaving services for women and girls.

To see the end of violence against women and girls there is a real need to resource femaleonly trauma informed support services, which respond to the needs of women and girls with a knowledge and level of research supporting and advocating on their behalf to a place of safety and security. In order to achieve this we must respond to changing landscapes and support women to live a life free from disadvantage, abuse and exploitation. Only when we listen to survivors can we create services, which are fit for purpose, current and relevant.

An example of this is research commissioned by CSAN member charities the National Board of Catholic Women and women@thewell: Invisible: prostitution and the lives of women. The report was a result of listening to the voices of women whose lives have been affected by prostitution, as well as the voices of some of the professional staff who support them. The unusual feature of this report is that its concern was not primarily with the facts of the women’s situations the violence, frequent experiences of homelessness and addiction but with how the women made sense of their lives. In particular, the reflection on what freedom means in their own lives, and on issues such as safety, survival and solidarity.

Through this listening we come to a deeper understanding of the damage of prostitution. The women’s voices are full of anguish, courage, resilience and morality. The research had a double task: to listen to the women and amplify their insights and stories and to bring these into dialogue with Catholic social thought and theological and political ethics. In a world where women experience daily inequality based on their gender, we believe that the structure of Catholic social thought gives us some solid building blocks to work towards gender equality.

We pray together for the women and girls who are victims and survivors of violence, those that work to support them in their recovery, those who advocate tirelessly to change systems, and especially for those who have the power to make changes within their communities. May we work together to eliminate the scourge of violence and build a brighter future for all women and girls.

The National Board of Catholic Women have produced a resource for parishes and groups, which includes information on where to access support.


Journeying from despair to hope


Staff writer, Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact) – CSAN member

I was in prison and you came to see me

Matt 25:36

The sudden and unexpected arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic changed all our lives. Compelled to stay at home, to mix only in defined bubbles and to keep our distance, even from loved ones, was painful for us all and, for some, unbearably so. For those imprisoned, enforced separation is an everyday experience yet for prisoners and their family members, the sense of isolation, loneliness and the ensuing mental health issues which have resulted during these past 18 months have been unprecedented. ‘Banged up’ for 23+ hours each day, no access to work or education and a complete cessation of family visits have tested the resolve of everyone. Online ‘purple visits’ have helped to keep family links but, as we all experienced in some way or other, no extent of online contact can ever be a substitute to being physically present with those we love. Today the situation is cautiously, but gradually, improving as prisons move through the five Coronavirus alert stages. That said, family visits are still limited, inside the prison visitor halls children’s play areas and refreshment areas are largely not yet operational. The situation is far from ‘normal’ and the ‘new normal’ is likely to be different for some time to come.

Writing in Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis reminds us that “Jesus asks us to be present to those in need of help, regardless of whether or not they belong to our social group.” (FT 81). This can be a challenge, especially when those we are called to help may have caused great harm to others. Yet we would do well to remember that the first person to follow Christ into the Heavenly Kingdom was a convicted thief, “In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). Grace knows no boundaries; “Christ shed his blood for each of us and…no-one is beyond the scope of his universal love.” (FT 85)

The impact of imprisonment on families with a family member in prison can be devastating. Families often feel ashamed, that they are to blame and must struggle on alone, often feeling ostracised and judged by association. How many such people are the ‘hidden’ in our parish communities, sitting alongside others in silence?  Imprisonment can, and does, happen to all ages and strata of society. Where and to whom do people turn when the unthinkable happens to them?

Jessie rang Pact’s 7 day a week Helpline. When Jessie’s husband was arrested and taken straight to prison, she was left alone with their children and without any income. On the verge of homelessness and with food in short supply, she didn’t know what to do. She explained to Alex, one of our Helpline volunteers, that her husband had always managed the family’s finances whilst she had focused her energy on raising their two children, aged 5 and 2. Jessie’s access to financial benefits had suddenly been stopped and both she and her husband were desperately worried about how she would manage. “I’ve never had to do this before,” she explained.

Despite being new to her volunteer role at Pact, Alex knew that Jessie was counting on her so set to work finding a way to help. She eventually found an organisation which was able to help Jessie get access to financial support. This was a great step forward, but the process was long and daunting and, in the meantime, Jessie’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating. She was now receiving a small sum for the children, but it wasn’t enough to cover the basics, so the family had to rely on food banks. Jessie felt as though she’d let her children down.

When Jessie told Alex that she was having to choose between feeding her children or keeping them warm, Alex turned to Pact’s Welfare Grants: emergency funding designed to make an immediate difference to someone’s life. The grant application was approved within a few hours and later that afternoon Alex was able to send Jessie vouchers for food and clothing. Thanks to Alex’s support Jessie is now also able to access the benefits she desperately needs but it may still not be enough to sustain her until her husband returns home. Pact volunteer Alex remains in regular contact with Jessie to provide support and advice as she waits to find out if she and her children will be able to keep their home.

The Helpline is just one way in which Pact reaches out to support people affected by imprisonment. Pact volunteers and employees work in close co-operation with hardworking prison staff, chaplains, healthcare workers and others as part of prison multi-agency teams. Our services are in many prisons and communities in England & Wales, including:

  • Prison-based family workers
  • Mentoring for prisoners
  • Court Services
  • Prison Visitors’ Centres for children and families
  • Prison and community-based relationship and parenting programmes
  • The national Prisoners’ Families Helpline and website

The Lord calls us to cooperate with Him in building the Kingdom of God on earth, transforming our offerings into grace-filled moments which change lives. Pact’s JustPeople program is a new initiative aimed at encouraging, inspiring and motivating people to explore how faith can be put into action, in practical ways, by volunteering with Pact. Starting in London and the South-East, JustPeople workshops will aim to help to strengthen parish communities through prayer, discernment and sharing, since it is in giving that we receive.

In describing the activities of Pact, our President Cardinal Vincent Nichols says, ‘This work is a direct expression of our discipleship and a very concrete expression of our desire to serve the Lord in those who are most vulnerable.’ In Jessie’s story we ‘see’ the positive impact of Pact’s work but even when we don’t ‘see’, we trust in Him. Changing hearts and minds is the Lord’s work. Who are we to judge?

Picture: Cardinal Nichols visits Wormwood Scrubs Prison, January 2022. Credit: Pact. Re-used with consent.

#ChooseToChallenge #IWD2021


By Jo Thompson, External Affairs Manager, women@thewell (CSAN member charity)

This year International Women’s Day asked us “to choose to challenge”, to celebrate women’s achievements and forge a gender equal world. 

The definition of achievement is “a thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage.” During the global pandemic, women across the globe have shown achievement daily and often without recognition. In a world where we have not yet reached gender equality, it will come as no surprise that women have used “effort, skills and courage” simply to survive. 

Women@thewell is a frontline service provider of support and exiting services, based in London, supporting women whose lives are affected by prostitution, both on street and off street, including women who have been trafficked into the sex trade. This year we use our “choose to challenge” for all women across the globe entrapped in the sex trade, a trade built upon oppression of women. We believe that until society recognises the buying and selling of a woman’s body as abhorrent, we will never achieve true gender equality. 

In the last year there was a noticeable trend across our services of women who would not have typically experienced exposure to exploitation in the sex trade seeking support. We believe this is a direct consequence of loss of employment and/or housing. This new cohort of women shines a bright light of clarity on the direct link between disadvantage, poverty and entrapment in the sex trade. Rachel Moran, our ambassador, author and founder of the abolitionist non-government organisation Space International, says,

The concept of ‘choice’ when applied to prostitution is both misleading and offensive because the cash is the coercion, and no woman or girl would choose prostitution if she had other options. It is a ‘choice out of no choice”.  

When one thinks of choice, how often do you have the luxury of free choice? Many women we support have little or no option other than to make ‘choices’ based on survival, in some cases as stark as the choice to live or die, a fact which especially highlighted by the current pandemic: Melissa Farley says, 

“You might survive the virus, but you won’t survive not eating for two months. If you ask any rational person if they’d rather take the virus, or not eat, that’s not even a thought”  

Gentile, 2020 (pdf)

Women entrapped in the sex trade face a range of challenging situations, such as homelessness, substance misuse, mental and physical health issues and poverty. All women should have access to support for their basic needs such as secure accommodation, access to healthcare and a regular income.  Without these it is impossible to live a life free from poverty and associated exploitation.  

With these in place, women can access viable opportunities and choices which are not influenced by survival, but instead come from a place of stability and free choice. 

We have been part of the conversation in the UK around prostitution and the issue of consent, which was referenced in the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission report, ‘The Limits of Consent’ (June 2019) – ‘In the context of prostitution many factors can inhibit one’s capacity to make a free choice.’ This is something which is very clear to us every day in our service provision. 

How can we together change the landscape for women and girls whilst building a world free from disadvantage, abuse and exploitation? 

We are committed to working towards full abolition of the sex trade. Lobbying and campaigning for the introduction of legislation to protect women sold into the sex trade remains high on our agenda. We believe this is the only possible option to keep women safe and protected – by the introduction of a legal framework that sends a clear message that women are not saleable objects.  

As Fiona Broadfoot, a survivor of internal trafficking and prostitution says,

“The UK needs to criminalise men who abuse women through prostitution because it is the demand creates the supply. Without demand from these men there would be no supply of vulnerable women and girls to be bought and sold.”  

Our experience delivering frontline services indicates strongly that this model – alongside provision of holistic exiting services – is essential to break down barriers and enable women to exit prostitution. Shaping a society in which commercialised, one-sided sexual gratification has no place. 

On his visit to the UK in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI asked leaders in British society, including politicians, business leaders and academics, gathered in Westminster Hall, “Where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?”  

Women@thewell advocate that ethical choices must be backed by Government legislation and a society which does not view women as saleable objects.  

Our “choose to challenge” today and from this day forward, is to challenge gender equality and celebrate all woman’s achievements as great accomplishments, against the odds day after day. 

Images from the work of artist Claudia Clare’s ‘And the Door Opened’ Project, undertaken in partnership with women@thewell. Re-used with permission.

The views expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not CSAN policy.

No salvation in fiscal policy


By Philip Booth, Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics, St. Mary’s University, Twickenham 

Yesterday, I ended a presentation to sixth-formers by commenting that nobody would want to be Rishi Sunak. Of course, in the strict sense that is not true – indeed, many of the people to whom I was talking might well have had ambitions to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. Of course, what I meant was that the Chancellor was facing the most difficult combination of circumstances of anybody in his position since the mid-1970s. It is in this context that we have to consider the widespread calls to increase government spending on welfare. 

Last year, government spending was about 45 per cent of national income and taxation about 38 per cent of national income. And this is before the big surge in spending caused by Covid-19. Since then, the economy has shrunk dramatically. As we know, the electorate is resistant to spending cuts: in the 2010-2015 period, government spending in real terms (that is after inflation) was cut by just 0.5 per cent per annum and this led to mass protests. It is difficult politically to square the fiscal circle with spending cuts. At the same time, the tax take is more or less at its peacetime high. 

Although it was right for the government to borrow more money to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, our national debt has now reached worrying levels. After declining from its post Second World War peak, it shot up in the financial crisis 13 years ago and has never gone back to a sustained declining path since. The pandemic is likely to take the national debt well over 100 per cent of national income. We can borrow to smooth the costs of a crisis, but anybody who thinks we can increase the national debt on a sustained basis in normal terms over many decades is living in cloud cuckoo land. 

What makes the Chancellor’s position so difficult, is that this is only the start of our problems. Before the Covid-19 crisis really got going, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) produced its annual Fiscal Sustainability Report. It suggested that, on current policy (that is with tax rates unchanged and thresholds increased in line with government plans and making reasonable assumptions about health, pensions, social care and other spending), the national debt would rise to 400 per cent of national income over the next 50 years. To stabilise the debt, taxes would have to rise by a total of 15 percentage points of national income over that period (in other words increase by 40 per cent over and above their current level). 

That’s okay, people might think. There are political choices to be made. We should ask the rich to pay a bit more tax. We can be a bit more like Sweden. However, tax increases of this magnitude are not about asking some people to pay a bit more tax. They would take the burden above that in any developed country. Indeed, it could not be done without hitting the less-well-off and choking off economic growth to such an extent that there would be huge suffering. 

In fact, looking at other countries’ tax systems is instructive. In Scandinavian countries they do have a higher tax burden. However, this is a burden which falls very much on the less well off too. In Denmark, an individual will pay 25 per cent value added tax on everything – including children’s clothes, fuel and food. An individual earning £9,000 a year would pay direct tax of about 16 per cent of their income and then pay VAT on their spending. In the UK, an individual on such low earnings would pay no direct tax and no VAT on food, children’s clothing, fuel and a number of other exempt items. 

The interesting feature of tax and welfare systems in developed countries is that they are very different from each other, but their redistributive effect is remarkably similar. Indeed, the UK is firmly in the top half of the league table for the extent to which its tax and welfare system redistributes money from rich to poor. 

The fundamental reason why the government’s position is so difficult is demography. A rising proportion of old people explains nearly all the OBR’s dire projections. Unfortunately, it is too late to do anything about that. The time for encouraging saving to pay for pensions, health and care costs or for the government to run surpluses so that it had a buffer to deal with the ageing of the baby boomers was 25 years ago. Many of us wasted a lot of energy making that case then. 

We are genuinely resourced constrained in a way we have not seen before. To have reached what seems like the maximum taxable capacity of the economy whilst spending needs accelerate due to demography is nothing short of a fiscal disaster. 

At least Catholic social teaching has some other places to look when it comes to thinking about how we might help the poor. Indeed, it has never regarded the government as the main source of welfare. We might, for example, look at housing policy. Restrictions on house building, largely arising from well-off vested interests campaigning against house building, have meant that between 1969 and 2019, UK house prices have risen by 3.7 times over and above inflation. In Germany, over the same period, house prices have risen by 20 per cent. This is an unmitigated disaster for the poor. It is a major explanation for poverty in the United Kingdom. This is not about a lack of social housing: we have the third highest level of social housing in Europe. It is about planning constraints on housebuilding.  

We might also look to the family. In the UK, 22 per cent of children live in lone parent households. This compares with an EU average of 17 per cent, 15 per cent in Germany and 12 per cent in Holland. Persistent poverty is two-and-a-half times greater in lone parent families than in couple families. We might ask, what is tax and welfare policy doing to support family formation? The answer is that it is more or less uniquely bad in Europe from that perspective. What can civil society institutions and charities do to support the family? What can the Church do to change culture? 

This is a difficult discussion. It can easily seem as if we are blaming lone parents. This needs to be turned round. Life as a lone parent is very, very difficult. We should have every sympathy with them. But government policy, civil society and the Church need to simultaneously help build stronger families whilst supporting those families in difficulty for whatever reason. This will help reduce poverty significantly as well as having many other positive spin-offs. 

The great tradition of Catholic social teaching has, of course, always had lessons for government policy. But the common good is the responsibility of all individuals and institutions in society. We do need to recognise that there is no easy solution to the many problems the country faces arising from fiscal adjustments. Simply complaining that the government is not spending enough money is not a prudent response (in any sense of the word). And we should be aware – the situation is going to get worse over several decades. We need to look in other directions if we are to find lasting solutions to the problem of poverty. 

The views in this blog are of the author and not CSAN policy.