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It isn’t suicide, it’s murder: Part 2 – Too close to home: Langford man hounded to death over council tax dispute February 18, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Death, Mental Health.
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Biggleswade Chronicle, 17/2/2012: Eviction fear drove engineer to suicide

Biggleswade Chronicle, 17/2/2012: Eviction fear drove engineer to suicide

THIS IS THE STORY that ran on the front cover of our local paper, The Biggleswade Chronicle, yesterday, and it’s a story that’s as tragic as it gets: in short, Peter Williams, who was clinically depressed and lived here in Langford, didn’t pay his council tax for several years around the turn of the millennium, was made bankrupt and eventually, faced with the threat of eviction from his home, killed himself on the railway at Biggleswade last week.

I’ll let one of his friends take up the story, as published in the Chronicle:

His friend, Richard Harris, who assisted Peter in his legal battles, said: “His council pursued him relentlessly and aggressively over a period of some 16 years without helping him. It culminated in them bankrupting him over a £1,350 debt in 2006, seeking to evict him from his home, which was worth in excess of £200,000, that he owned outright.”

The report goes on to quote a Central Beds Council spokesman explaining that the unpaid £1,350 represented legal costs incurred by the council and its solicitors in pursuing Mr Williams — but, if you’ll forgive me colloquialising, “it ain’t our fault, guv, honest” because the debt had been handed over to Grant Thornton, acting as bankruptcy trustees, and apparently they were the ones behind the eviction proceedings as part of the debt recovery process.

The council, on the other hand, were right there supporting Mr Williams:

[The spokesman] added that the council’s emergency duty team was in touch with Peter earlier this month and referred him for an urgent mental health assessment.

Last year the Local Government Ombudsman investigated the council’s relationship with Peter and said there were no grounds on which to criticise the council.

So where does that leave us? A man with known mental health problems, hounded to death over a council tax dispute, and a blameless council. Maybe I’m missing something here: I never knew Peter, even though he lived in the same village as me, and unlike the Local Government Ombudsman, I’m not privy to the ins and outs of Peter’s story and have only the Chronicle report to go on; but assuming the accuracy of that report, I have a couple of simple questions for Central Beds Council:

  1. Who let the dogs out?
  2. Since you knew about Peter’s mental health problems, why didn’t you call them off?

Seems to me that transferring a debt to a third party, then denying all responsibility when that third party’s pursuit of that debt results in a tragedy such as this, simply doesn’t wash, any more than Pontius Pilate washing his hands absolved him of responsibility for the death of Jesus.

No one should be hounded by debt collectors to the point where they can see no way forward beyond taking their own life; and when a person has a known record of mental health difficulties, even more caution is called for.

Which begs the question: was it suicide, or murder?

A shortened version of this post has been sent as a letter to the Biggleswade Chronicle.

Beyond Postmodernity: are we post-Church? February 12, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Church.
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ARE WE POST-CHURCH? That’s one of the questions posed by my bookselling friend Richard Greatrex as he reflects further on his recent blog post, The Word: Written on the heart or wiped from the screen?, in which he explores some of the social implications of the rise of the ebook alongside questions of Christian orthodoxy:

But finally, in concentrating on post-modernity I may well have missed a crucial question, which it seems still remains unanswered – are we post-Church? Could it be that the work of the Church is done? That its role in God’s unfolding plan has come to an end? That where the Church has become a monolith, a global brand with a corporate hymn sheet, it has negated its own usefulness? Could it be that post-modernity is not one of the tools for the destruction of a broad-sweep Christian orthodoxy but a hammer to break open the institutionalisation of the Gospel? Might it not be, that in a world which seems dominated by both globalization and individualization in equal measure, Christianity will not survive in unwieldy ecclesiastical vessels but in millions and millions of tiny virtual and physical base communities each refracting the Faith through the prism of their special interests? If this is in any way the case then the role of the internet and all other forms of mass globalized communication will be very interesting. It could be that the internet will give each and every expression of faith the space to become a competing voice in a never-ending babble. Or it might be that it will draw all these many disparate elements together, stitching them into the web of a composite new over-arching orthodoxy.

What do you think? Has Richard hit the nail on the head with these questions? Given the church’s seeming reluctance to take issues of equality on board in the ongoing resistance of some to women bishops and the refusal of the House of Bishops to recognise gay relationships as a valid expression of human sexuality, has the time come to call it a day for the institutionalised church and start afresh?

Comments here are welcome, but I’d love to see the conversation continue over at Richard’s place too — so head on over there today, read the full post, and join in…

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