“In my position, as you can imagine, I’ve got a few enemies.” An anonymous tip off has contacted the DWP to suggest that Nicholas Wilson is frauding the benefits office. “They sent a letter calling me in for a compliance interview.”

The irony is that Nicholas Wilson is a whistleblower, who has been trying to expose what would be the largest bank fraud in the history of the UK, totalling over £1bn. This is made up of illegal charges imposed by HFC Bank – previously a subsidiary of HSBC, onto unsuspecting UK customer debts on high street store cards.

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Wilson was head of debt recovery for Weightmans LLP – a national solicitors firm which acted for John Lewis – for over 25 years. However, in 2003 when John Lewis sold their accounts to HFC Bank, Wilson noticed they immediately began adding “collection charges” of 16.4% to customer store cards in arrears. These charges were illegal.

Wilson spoke up, complaining to staff and colleagues and refusing to work on the HFC account. The charges were being applied to customers already in debt and hardship; a fraud by the second biggest bank on the some of the nation’s poorest, and yet for standing against this, Wilson’s boss dubbed him ‘Mr Ethical.’

By 2006, Wilson was finding the toll of his work unbearable and by now the fraud was being carried out on thousands of people. He reported it to the Law Society (Solicitors Regulation Authority) and was immediately sacked by Weightmans.


“I’ve been campaigning ever since. The SRA upheld my complaint, they said it was unlawful but they didn’t take any action and said it only happened in a small number of cases.”

The charges were overseen by 2 solicitor firms – Weightmans and Restons.

“I’ve calculated that in the year of my complaint, 2006, 2 firms between them added£44m of illegal charges in that one year. So, a small number of cases?”

When leaving Weightmans, Wilson helped some customers get their money back, but while the SRA upheld his complaint, he found HFC continued adding the illegal charges to customer cards. He now estimates the fraud to have affected between 500,000 – 600,000 UK customers with charges ranging from £500-£5000.

“The silence of the mainstream media is driving me insane actually. It really is.” Wilson relays the numerous times he has been contacted and worked with news stations, sometimes for months at a time, before the story is pulled at the last minute.

“I get spiked all the time. I get so close and then things are pulled at the last minute… the crux of the problem with me is that if this gets out it will be such a massive scandal. It’s about a billion pound fraud and it involves Dixons, Currys, PC World, B&Q, John Lewis  – all these high street stores, and potentially HSBC could lose it’s licence in America.”

Wilson points to HSBC’s advertising and funding power as a reason for the silence of media.

Earlier this year, veteran journalist Peter Oborne publicly resigned from the Telegraph precisely because the advertising power of the bank was blocking critical reporting about them, particularly during the Swiss tax evasion leaks.

At the BBC, the appointment of Rona Fairhead to the broadcaster’s Trust came as a surprise to even Conservative members in 2014. Fairhead is a Director of HSBC, receiving over £500,000 in annual pay, as well as shares in the bank worth almost the same.

The ‘world’s local bank’ is familiar in government too. In 2010, David Cameron appointed HSBC Executive Chairman Stephen Green to the House of Lords. When news of the Swiss tax evasion leaks came to the fore in 2015, questions arose of Cameron’s knowledge of the scandal. Evidence had been handed to HMRC by French authorities as early as May 2010 – months before Green’s appointment.

Cameron and his colleagues denied knowledge of the scale of the scandal. Meanwhile, Dave Hartnett, Head of Tax at HMRC in 2010, retired two years later and took a role with HSBC on a committee advising the bank on how to ‘maintain the best possible standards’.

2010 was also the the year the Office of Fair Trading gave a new ruling that HFC’s charges on store cards were illegal – finally bringing them to an end, something Cameron would have been made aware of.

The revolving door has been crucial to the continued cover up of these charges. Wilson has taken his complaint to the Financial Conduct Authority who’s Complaints Commissioner Anthony Townsend, was Chief Commissioner of the law society at the time of Wilson’s initial complaint in 2003, where the fraud was downplayed and went on unabated and unpunished.

When Wilson chased the FCA for an answer on the action being taken he received a response which demonstrated the collusion between the regulators and the banks.

Joel Benjamin, a financial researcher,  had attended a HSBC AGM with the intent of following up Wilson’s complaint. After writing to the bank, Benjamin’s response mirrored that of Wilson’s from the FCA:

“The reply [Joel] received from HSBC and the reply I received from the FCA was exactly the same. Two paragraphs, exactly the same wording, exactly the same paragraph, punctuation and everything. So I caught them out. I discovered that they’d colluded.”

The letter revealed that the regulator checked with the bank for the appropriate response rather than investigating and regulating independently. Both were forced to admit the collusion at a grilling by the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year and apologised though no action was sought:

“I’m not interested in an apology. I’m interested in ordering HSBC to repay a billion pounds to half a million people.”

The toll of the campaigning work and the shunning of his story by colleagues, authorities and the media have been at great expense to Wilson’s health and wellbeing. Having given up a comfortable life to expose this crime, he has lost his job, almost lost his house, battled illness and given up his chances of working again. He said on his website “My conclusion is do not blow the whistle in the UK, unless it is life or death.”

Still, Wilson’s evidence and allegations are dangerous. They not only implicate the bank itself, or the many high street stores, but the figures involved in the cover up which spread across solicitors and accountants, regulators, media and the Prime Minister himself.

This is a crime that could reveal the reliance of the bloated financial sector on fraud and criminal activity, which for HSBC alone now ranges from the fixing of trillion dollar markets, funding of terrorism, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, to the administration of illegal and made up surcharges on UK accounts already in debt.

This along with the cover up may finally reveal to the public the ‘rotten architechture’ of the banks and finance centres, as John Pilger described the glimpse of truth we experienced in 2008, before the controlled narrative of austerity took hold and our gaze was shifted by the same organisations who seem to be protecting HSBC now.

You can visit Nicholas Wilson’s site here. 

Look out for the Real Media video report on this case in 2016.

Tomorrow: Stripping Small Business, Boosting Big Banks: How RBS Balanced its Books on SMEs and Got Away With It

1) ‘Humiliation’ greets new Work Capability Assessment provider in first week

 

Over 30 protests were held across the country against the new provider of Work Capability Assessments (WCA) on Monday 2nd March. American company Maximus replace ATOS but campaigners claim that this is merely a shift from one ‘toxic’ profit seeking company to another, making no difference to the disabled people being assessed. Maximus also has a history of discrimination, incompetance and alleged fraud in the US.

Protests held by activists from Disabled People Against Cuts sought to re-name the company as Maximarse which trended briefly on Twitter during the demonstrations. Embarrassingly for Maximarse, it was revealed that the company had bought the domain http://www.maximarse.com to prevent any spoof websites being created against them.

The purchase was made on 26 January by the company’s senior manager for investor relations and corporate communications. Maximus have yet to comment on the domain purchase or their plans for the site.

Read more about this story here.

2) Jeremy Hunt accused of cover up over damning NHS report

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been accused of a ‘politically motivated’ cover up of a critical report on the NHS, written by Tory peer and ex-M&S boss Stuart Rose. Sarah Wollaston, a GP and Tory MP who now heads up the health select committee has accused Jeremy Hunt of with-holding vital information until after the election. The report is critical of problems with NHS management, which could come as a blow to the Tory election campaign, as the NHS becomes a hot topic. Rose is said to be angry at the report’s stifling, though has not made any comments.

“Wollaston told the Observer that reports which had been commissioned by government and paid for by taxpayers should be made available at the earliest opportunity on matters of such clear public interest. “There is far too much of this going on, with uncomfortable information being withheld,” Wollaston said. “Just as with the Chilcot report into the Iraq war, it is not right that reports paid for out of public money are not made available to the public on such vital issues as soon as possible, particularly ahead of a general election.”

 Read more about this story here.

3) Occupy Democracy protestors given go ahead to challenge Boris over Parliament Square fencing

Occupy Democracy returned to Parliament Square this weekend on a day that coincided with the thousands of Londoners at the Climate March, with the good news that they have been given permission to challenge Mayor of London Boris Johnson over the decision to erect a fence halfway through a 10 day Occupy demonstration, prohibiting peaceful protest from continuing.

Protestors were told that the fencing was required for maintenance of the grass, but the area was quickly extended, forcing the protestors further and further away. Occupy Democracy went to great lengths to ensure there was no littering and an alcohol free zone. There were also never so many protestors to inhibit others being able to join them or dominate the area.

“Rosie Brighouse, Lawyer for Liberty, said:

“The UK has a long, proud history of holding the powerful to account, and the right to protest peacefully is enshrined in law in our Human Rights Act. Unfortunately that can be something of an inconvenience for those in power.

“The Mayor’s flagrant disregard for one of our most fundamental freedoms, on the very doorstep of the palace of power, cannot be allowed to go unchecked – so we’re delighted the courts have seen fit to review his actions.”

Read more about this story here.

4) Boris Johnson’s ‘duplicitous claims’ over vanity project revealed

London’s ‘garden bridge’ project was billed as a free gift for London, but a confidential letter leaked to the Guardian has revealed the public purse is obliged to pay the £3.5m maintenance costs yearly on top of £60m committed funds.

This goes against everything Johnson has publicly promised about the project, which now is causing a strain on transport funds while he sells it as a ‘sponsored gift.’This is also amid growing austerity, poverty and social cleansing in the capital, and while Boris makes attempts to shut down the voice of the public as above.

Read more about this story here.

5) Paul Mobbs arrested during citizens’ arrest of Cabinet

Environmental researcher and consultant Paul Mobbs was arrested under the Terrorism Act last week outside 10 Downing Street while he tried to arrest the Cabinet for Misconduct in Public Office. Watch this brilliant video detailing how Paul Mobbs went through with the action, giving great advice on how to deal with police and law at a time of institutional ignorance to human rights and corruption:

 

Update:

‘Paul has now been released from Charring Cross police station. He has officially reported a crime (misconduct in public office) which the police are now duty bound to investigate and he has provided them with everything they need to investigate the crime. He is now setting off home and should be back in Banbury in a few hours. He is going to celebrate by going for a walk tomorrow.’

 Read more about this story here. 

6) Wannabe Tory leader says it’s ‘impossible’ to raise family on £67k

Millionaire Windsor MP Adam Afriyie became yet another example of out-of-touch MPs after he claimed that it was ‘impossible’ to raise a family on an MP’s salary of £67k.

Afriyie said that MPs salaries and expenses should be scrapped and they should be given an allowance of £225,000 a year to spend however they want, adding that if wages from 1911 kept pace this is the figure MPs would be on. He failed to mention the rate at which the minimum wage would be if it had not been stifled by governments, or the rates of pay for nurses and care workers had they not been kept down by successive governments and environments of austerity and stagnant wages.

Read more about this idiot here.

1) Real Media Gathering 

It was a successful gathering for Real Media on Saturday. So many highlights and insights from the array of great speakers including Nafeez Ahmed, Des Freedman, Donnachadh Mccarthy, Samantha Asumadu, Jamie-Kelsey Fry and Angela Haggerty. We have some great pictures from ‘Fields of Light Photography’ – you can find more of their work here and more pictures from the conference here. Videos to come. Thanks to all involved.
Images: Fields of Light Photography 10410549_818513151535418_3351211666109392205_n 10456817_818513494868717_4988557541414463412_n 10647139_818513164868750_4858145583955167207_n 11043197_818512988202101_2624333882209417146_n 10919016_818513028202097_1896150508559306475_n 11025179_818512804868786_5840824138894688795_n

2) Maximus protests today

Nationwide protests are taking place today against the new provider of Work Capability Assessments; Maximus. The American provider replaces ATOS but concerns remain high as Maximus has a history of fraud and fundamental changes to the assessment system have not been implemented leaving sick and disabled people at risk of further problems.

Paula Peters explains more in this video interview with the Artist Taxi Driver, and you can find out more here.

3) Homelessness up more than 50% since 2010

Statistics released last week show that street homelessness has risen 55% since the coalition came to power.

In London, street homelessness has risen 80% since 2010.

Rick Henderson of Homeless Link said:

“We should ask ourselves why it is acceptable that anyone has to sleep rough in Britain today.

“What’s even more shocking is that the number of people in this situation has risen every year since 2010.

“Unfortunately, many charities have seen funding fall at the very time that demand for help is on the rise.

“To turn the tide, politicians need to make sure the right support needs are available in every area so that no one has to live on our streets.”

 

Read more about this story here.

4) Rifkin in ‘policy for sale’ scandal, Cameron attempts to smooth over corruption

Much like Boris Johnson’s defence of tax avoidance by Boots as ‘doing the job well’, Cameron now defends MP’s second jobs as they need a ‘range of experience’ despite the clear conflict of interest. We’ll leave it to Mark Steel writing in the Independent to sum up this one:

“Members of Parliament should have second jobs, said David Cameron, to give them a “range of experience”, and keep them in touch with the common person. So that’s why they do the sort of second jobs they have, because nothing keeps you in touch with the common person as much as being paid five grand a day consulting an Arab bank.

“They also maintain there was nothing underhand about the services they were offering. This may be true, and when Straw offered to work for a Chinese company, it never occurred to him that the reason they were interested in him was he could use his position to influence ministers. He thought they’d heard he was really good at filing. And when he said he charges between £5,000 and £8,000 for a speech, he never imagined companies pay that to get access to the Government. He gets that much because he does a hilarious impression of Saddam Hussein, and juggles with cauliflowers for an extra 50 quid.”

Find a list of MPs who earned more than £7m outside of Parliament in 2014 here.

Read the full article here.

5) Greg Wise and Emma Thompson refuse to pay tax until HSBC are punished

Actor Greg Wise, married to actress Emma Thompson, has vowed not to pay tax until those involved in the HSBC scandal are sentenced:

“Wise spoke of his disgust with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the bank after the Guardian and other news organisations published leaked details of 100,000 accounts held by HSBC’s Swiss arm which showed how the bank had helped clients to move cash out of the country.

“I want to stop paying tax, until everyone pays tax,” Wise told the Evening Standard. “I have actively loved paying tax, because I am a profound fucking socialist and I believe we are all in it together. But I am disgusted with HMRC. I am disgusted with HSBC. And I’m not paying a penny more until those evil bastards go to prison.”

by Tekla Szerszynska 

(Names have been changed to protect anonymity)

We spoke to four women, who are asylum seekers based in Greater Manchester, to find out what their experiences of the asylum system have been, and how they feel about the treatment of asylum seekers in this country. All of the women have been living in the UK for a number of years and most of them are awaiting final decisions on their cases which have been significantly delayed. This is the second part of these interviews, read Part One here.

IMage: electronicintifada.net

Rose’s story reflects how fear develops. Rose arrived in the UK 8 years ago, fleeing Zimbabwe. She didn’t know about the process of claiming asylum and came to the UK as her daughter’s visitor. It then became clear that if she were to claim asylum on arrival she would be detained because it would contradict her original stated reason for coming. Rose’s daughter tried to help her by applying for Rose to be considered her dependent but she was too young. Rose then applied for asylum and her application was rejected. She found herself with no benefits and no housing – she was destitute. Although the Home Office ruled that Rose was not allowed to work, she could see no other option but to look for a job. She began work as a carer, which she enjoyed, and found that the support she offered was valued highly by her clients. But this work came to an abrupt end when her home was raided by UKBA and she was detained in Bedford detention centre for three months. The raid was terrifying for her. ‘They sent six cars just for me,’ she explains. Since that day, years ago, the clients Rose cared for continue to contact her to plead that she returns as their carer. ‘It is so frustrating but I am too scared to go back’, she tells us. Her treatment in detention was ‘horrific. I’ll never forget that life and that I was a prisoner when I did absolutely nothing. Working in this country is a crime for us’.

She has now been waiting on a response to a fresh claim – a submission of new evidence to support an initially rejected claim – that she submitted two and a half years ago. The other women tell her that she should be eligible to apply for a work permit as she has been waiting over a year. Rose explains that although you can apply, they will only allow you to work in specific, high level areas, such as engineering, medicine and law. You just need to look at the ‘Shortage Occupation List’, which outlines the possible jobs for those who have permission, to see that they exclude huge numbers of people. Rose doesn’t have the skills for these jobs and, what’s more, her education and work experience have been held back by the years she has spent in the asylum system, barred from seeking employment. Most importantly though, whatever Rose’s skills and education, the trauma of the raid and her period in detention along with regular news of other asylum seekers being arrested, detained and even deported without warning, have left her living in fear. Now she has learnt the potential consequences of putting a foot wrong, Rose wouldn’t dare draw attention to herself by trying to navigate a system that has her life in its grip. She can only hope to hold on long enough for some good news; good news which may never come.

So as these women wait to learn their fates, with no idea when or if they will, they are held in a state of limbo; unable to improve their lives by earning a living and in constant fear of being snatched from their own homes. A further limitation on their freedom to improve their situations or exert any control over their day to day lives comes in the shape of the Azure card. The small benefit payment they are provided with, £35 per week for single asylum seekers, is held on this card and can only be spent in specific, large shops. Card users cannot use the card to buy store/gift cards, fuel, tobacco products or alcohol, its cashless format rules out travel costs or school trips and the balance cannot be saved and carried over above five pounds per week. These restrictions are only the beginning. All of the women I speak to have experienced humiliation and rejection when using the card. Shop staff ‘say they don’t know the card. They call the manager in front of a long queue who are all listening. The manager asks me what I’m buying. I may have toiletries, sanitary pads, and sometimes they say I’m not allowed to buy these things. So many times I’ve been refused to buy a cheap five pound pair of shoes.’ Often this is because staff aren’t trained in how the card works and the consequences of this are summed up by Sara – ‘that’s the only money you can use to buy food for the week so you’re stuck.’ What should be a simple shopping trip to meet a basic need – such as groceries or a school uniform – often results in embarrassment and distress. Josie then explained that her card credit has recently been reduced to only £2.43 per month because the Home Office noticed a payment into her bank account from her sister. The payment was to pay for Josie and her son to make a rare visit to their family in the South of England over Christmas. Josie’s son doesn’t even qualify for free school meals because of her asylum status. They are now relying on emergency food parcels from the health visitor. 

All of the women we spoke to live in government provided housing which is managed by Serco. They describe cold and damp houses with no lights, broken furniture, and no hot water, shower or heating for extended periods. ‘You would be shocked by the house,’ says Rose. ‘I wish I could take pictures and show the world the house I’m living in.’ She describes her attempts to improve her home – trying to decorate her living room with flowers and a carpet her neighbours didn’t want any more. The manager of the housing told her they had to be removed. There is a sense that these daily struggles have a particularly significant impact, as they demonstrate that the lack of control these women have over their lives even extends to the one place they should be able to feel safe and comfortable. Their requests for repairs and improvement are dealt with slowly and badly, if at all and the management ‘only start acting when you write a letter to the National Asylum Support Service.’ Many of them also feel further isolated by women they share their house with, who often don’t share their religion, language or background, and have experienced racism in their own homes. ‘We are afraid. There are some people who don’t know their rights. Some house managers want to treat people as if they’re in prison.’

The women we spoke to concluded in emphasising that the way asylum seekers are treated in the UK is as though they are being punished for a crime they haven’t committed. They can’t understand why they were given the legal option to claim asylum if this would be the consequence. These women have found vital support in small, local asylum seeker groups and organisations – who they note have been invaluable in helping them when they have had nowhere else to turn, such as when they have been unable to find legal aid, or when they need support to make long journeys to the reporting centre with their children and no travel money. They have also found strength in the solidarity of the asylum seeking community, without which they may not have made it this far. But they know that many other asylum seekers have not been able to access this support; they are hidden and extremely isolated. And ultimately, through each exhausting and humiliating day, they feel that they are fighting a losing battle in which the Home Office and the UKBA are powerful assailants. ‘Some of the people are just regretting that they came to this country – truly speaking, I’m one of them’ says Rose. ‘The whole world should know, don’t ever come to England to seek asylum… the way asylum seekers are treated in England is horrific.’ But these women also want to explain that they don’t just wish to draw attention to the oppression of the asylum system, they want to be recognised as human beings who want to make an active and positive contribution to the society they are living in. ‘We ran away from persecution and we came here to find a safe place, to find shelter, not just to sit,’ Josie explains. ‘We want to help this country, we want to go to work, we want to be normal people and do everything that normal people do. We didn’t come for benefits.’ While they remain under the stifling control of a system which treats them with suspicion, cruelty and condemnation they have no means of controlling the mundane elements of their day to day lives, let alone of improving their circumstances for themselves and their families. ‘If they said ‘go and work on your own’ that would be the best thing – then we’d work for ourselves. This is destroying us – they’re destroying us… Some people think dying is better. The only thing that is keeping me going is the fact that I have a little boy now.’

——-

Manchester No Borders are running an Azure Card Buddy Scheme where volunteers give support to asylum seekers when out shopping, helping with any problems that arise. You can find out more info and sign up here.

“The Azure Card replaced the voucher system for the provision of weekly funds to asylum seekers in the UK. In addition to the tiny amount people are asked to live off with these cards, capped at £35 a week, they greatly restrict both where and on what people can spend their money. They also prevent asylum seekers from saving money and so obtaining even basic essentials as a pair of shoes or a winter coat becomes near impossible. Other problems people report facing with these cards include stigmatisation, including humiliating treatment from cashiers and members of the public, and having their money unfairly reduced by the Home Office without warning. There have also been many reports of the card not working at all and card users have to go home without food. The Azure Card system plays a central role in restricting and destabilising the lives of asylum seekers in the UK.”

As we release our two part interview of 4 asylum seekers’ experiences in the UK we bring you some facts about asylum, a system in the UK which is severely distorted through a mainstream media lens, resulting in mistaken prejudice about some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

– 2003 Press Complaints Commission guidance ruled that the phrase “illegal asylum seeker” is inaccurate.

– There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.

– Charities have made complaints for over a decade to the PCC on what has been agreed as widespread inaccurate coverage.

“Media outlets often inflate or speculate about numbers of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. Newspaper and TV images play into the dominant stereotype of the young dangerous man breaking into Britain and threatening ‘our’ communities. 31 percent of headlines and 53 percent of text about asylum across all newspapers has negative connotations. Language used to describe immigration is highly hostile across all newspaper types, with ‘illegal’ and ‘bogus’ the most commonly used terms to describe immigrants and asylum seekers.

“In addition to mis-reporting, there is also ‘over-reporting’. In 2002, for example, 25 percent of Daily Mail and 24 percent of Daily Express articles were about asylum.”

Chitra Nagarajan,  How Politicians and The Media Made Us Hate Immigrants, 20 September 2013

Image: Tell It Like It Is - Refugee Council

(Following facts taken from Refugee Council report: ‘Tell It Like It Is: The Truth About Asylum’)

POOR COUNTRIES – NOT THE UK – LOOK AFTER MOST OF THE WORLD’S REFUGEES

– The UK is home to just over 1% of the world’s refugees – out of more than 15 million worldwide. (UNHCR Global Trends 2012)

 – Over 509,000 refugees have fled the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including about 52,000 during 2012. Only 205 of these people applied for asylum in the UK in 2012. (UNHCR Global Trends 2012 & Home Office quarterly statistical summary, asylum statistics 2012)

 – About 80% of the world’s refugees live in developing countries, often in camps. Africa, Asia, and the Middle East between them host more than three quarters of the world’s refugees. Europe looks after just 16%. (UNHCR Global Trends 2011)

The likelihood that a refugee will be recognised as being in need of asylum depends on the country where they apply. In the UK in 2012, 30% of the people who applied for asylum were granted it. In some countries, such as Switzerland and Finland, over 70% of applications succeed. (UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2010)

 – The UK asylum system is strictly controlled and complex. It is very difficult to get asylum. The process is extremely tough and the majority of people’s claims are turned down. (Home Office statistics from 2006-2012)

 – A high number of initial decisions made by the Home Office on asylum cases are wrong. In 2012, the courts overturned 27% of negative decisions after they were appealed. (Home Office asylum statistics fourth quarter 2012)

 – There is a particular problem with decisions on women’s claims. A 2011 study found 50% of negative decisions were overturned by the courts. (Asylum Aid, Unsustainable: The quality of initial decision-making in women’s asylum claims 2011)

 – Asylum seekers do not come to the UK to claim benefits. In fact, most know nothing about welfare benefits before they arrive and had no expectation that they would receive financial support. (Refugee Council, Chance or Choice? Understanding why asylum seekers come to the UK, 2010)

 – Many asylum seekers live in poverty and many families are not able to pay for the basics such as clothing, powdered milk and nappies. (The Children’s Society Briefing highlighting the gap between asylum support and mainstream benefits 2012)

 – Almost all asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are forced to rely on state support – this can be as little as £5 a day to live on. Asylum seekers are not entitled to council housing. The accommodation allocated to them is not paid for by the local council. Some asylum seekers, and those who have been refused asylum, are not entitled to any form of financial support and are forced into homelessness. This includes heavily pregnant women.

  Asylum seeking women who are destitute are vulnerable to violence in the UK. More than a fifth of the women accessing our therapeutic services had experienced sexual violence in this country. (Refugee Council, The experiences of refugee women in the UK, 2012)

by Tekla Szerszynska 

(Names have been changed to protect anonymity)

We spoke to four women, who are asylum seekers based in Greater Manchester, to find out what their experiences of the asylum system have been, and how they feel about the treatment of asylum seekers in this country. All of the women have been living in the UK for a number of years and most of them are awaiting final decisions on their cases which have been significantly delayed.

IMage: electronicintifada.net

Mary* described the devastating impact the asylum system has had on her mental health from the moment she arrived in the UK. When she got to the centre where she was told to claim asylum, it was closed. Mary found herself alone and afraid in an unfamiliar city and eventually, after walking the streets and being turned away from a refugee centre, she found a church where she was allowed to sleep for two nights as she waited for the asylum screening centre to open. When it finally did, and Mary was able to begin her claim, her relief was short-lived and turned quickly to fear and distress as her interview began. ‘They tried to intimidate me’, she says. ‘You’re coming because of torture or traumatic events and you’re not really yourself… They try to confuse you and ask the same question again but twist it. Then they will use the answers against you. Sometimes they write something down that you didn’t say and when you start reading the interview sheet you think “I didn’t say this! How come this is there?”’

“There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.”

Refugee Council

Read our fact post out tomorrow on Asylum in the UK

After her initial interview, Mary was handcuffed and taken in a van to a place she didn’t know. She was given tiny portions of food and water and her photo was taken, like a police mug shot. ‘It was so scary. I thought, “What is happening to me?” And I said “I’m not a criminal, why do you do this to me?”’ Mary was then taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre and this is where she first experienced symptoms of schizophrenia, a mental illness which current research understands can be triggered by a stressful life event. Mary is now on medication for her schizophrenia, and though it has helped reduce her symptoms she is also suffering from its side effects. Now in the UK for seven years, Mary has been taken to Yarl’s Wood three times, one of which saw her spending Christmas and New Year there. Detention has been very traumatic for Mary and has always come unexpectedly – ‘I was supposed to be going to the tribunal but they just arrested me when I went to sign at Dallas Court’, the local immigration reporting centre. Most asylum seekers must report to one of these centres on a weekly or monthly basis and, because of experiences like Mary’s, people set off to report not knowing whether they will return. Mary’s case went to judicial review and has been handed to the Home Office. As she waits for news, Mary is overwhelmed with uncertainty and fear – ‘I don’t know what will be happening to me now. My situation is frightening. I’m even sick because of this whole thing. Inside I feel very lonely as if nobody’s there for me. It’s terrible.’ Her voice grows quiet as she says ‘sometimes I just feel like dying’.

The women we spoke to are all experiencing slightly different circumstances and concerns but Mary’s deep fear and despair resounded with them all. They explained that the regular trips to report at an immigration reporting centre are a major source of stress and humiliation in all their lives. Every time they report they are scared that this will be the day they are arrested and placed in detention or even deported. ‘This is a journey we must make every week, whether it is snowing, whether we are sick’ explains Rose. For Rose, an accidentally missed reporting resulted in a letter threatening jail or a large fine, despite the same system keeping asylum seekers in financial hardship. The frequency and significance of these appointments hang over the women. The fear of the consequences of missing one or being late means they often go early and are made to stand in the cold outside, while the centre sometimes opens late. ‘They don’t care about us’, explains Rose. For these women, the attitude of the centre staff demonstrates one example of a widespread double standard – the staff working in the asylum system make mistakes unapologetically, even when these mistakes seriously impact upon the people who are caught up in the system. Meanwhile, those seeking asylum know that any mistake they make may cost them their freedom, their safety and their mental health. Josie explains that one of her friends was overjoyed to receive a letter granting her indefinite leave to remain in the UK. She then received another letter to say it had been sent in error. Another friend received a ticket to go to Liverpool for an appointment but on arrival, she discovered it had been a mistake. This led to her being reprimanded for missing her normal appointment at the reporting centre. While these women’s futures hang in the balance, miscommunication and blunders such as these can feel like the final straw. ‘Our life – you never know what is going to happen. You know any time you can be taken.’

Read Part 2 of Asylum stories – the reality of living life in the UK asylum system here.

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Manchester No Borders are running an Azure Card Buddy Scheme where volunteers give support to asylum seekers when out shopping, helping with any problems that arise. You can find out more info and sign up here.

“The Azure Card replaced the voucher system for the provision of weekly funds to asylum seekers in the UK. In addition to the tiny amount people are asked to live off with these cards, capped at £35 a week, they greatly restrict both where and on what people can spend their money. They also prevent asylum seekers from saving money and so obtaining even basic essentials as a pair of shoes or a winter coat becomes near impossible. Other problems people report facing with these cards include stigmatisation, including humiliating treatment from cashiers and members of the public, and having their money unfairly reduced by the Home Office without warning. There have also been many reports of the card not working at all and card users have to go home without food. The Azure Card system plays a central role in restricting and destabilising the lives of asylum seekers in the UK.”

1) HSBC offers full page apology only for the least of their crimes

“They don’t mention all the tens of thousands of beheaded people in Mexico and Columbia. They don’t mention all those ripped off by all the Libor rigging, or all the clients they ripped off in the Forex scandal.”

Stacey Herbert

Max Keiser hits the nail on the head in this video, putting some perspective on the actions, treatment and non-punishment for years of mass criminal behaviour and financial terrorism at one of our largest banks, including the fact HSBC funded terrorist groups. The media has worked hard to shape the debate and limit our understanding of the gross injustice inflicted on the world by banks like HSBC. In the video, co-host Stacey Herbert highlights that the Department of Justice in the UK failed to prosecute and punish HSBC because of ‘collateral consequences’ suggesting they are too big to punish. However, Iceland has punished, sentenced and regulated their financial industries and guess what? Their economy has not collapsed, and their public are much safer.

2) Peter Oborne publicly resigns from The Telegraph over ‘fraudulent’ coverage

Political Commentator, Peter Oborne publicly resigned from The telegraph with this letter posted on Open Democracy where he accuses the Telegraph of having committed a fraud on its readers over coverage of HSBC.

 

Image: The Commentator

Image: The Commentator

From the letter:

“With the collapse in standards has come a most sinister development. It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart. There is a great deal of evidence that, at the Telegraph, this distinction has collapsed.

“Late last year I set to work on a story about the international banking giant HSBC. Well-known British Muslims had received letters out of the blue from HSBC informing them that their accounts had been closed. No reason was given, and it was made plain that there was no possibility of appeal. “It’s like having your water cut off,” one victim told me.”

“When I submitted it for publication on the Telegraph website, I was at first told there would be no problem. When it was not published I made enquiries. I was fobbed off with excuses, then told there was a legal problem. When I asked the legal department, the lawyers were unaware of any difficulty. When I pushed the point, an executive took me aside and said that “there is a bit of an issue” with HSBC. Eventually I gave up in despair and offered the article toopenDemocracy. It can be read here.

“I researched the newspaper’s coverage of HSBC. I learnt that Harry Wilson, the admirable banking correspondent of the Telegraph, had published an online story about HSBC based on a report from a Hong Kong analyst who had claimed there was a ‘black hole’ in the HSBC accounts. This story was swiftly removed from the Telegraph website, even though there were no legal problems. When I asked HSBC whether the bank had complained about Wilson’s article, or played any role in the decision to remove it, the bank declined to comment. Mr Wilson’s contemporaneous tweets referring to the story can be found here. The story itself, however, is no longer available on the website, as anybody trying to follow through the link can discover. Mr Wilson rather bravely raised this issue publicly at the ‘town hall meeting’ when Jason Seiken introduced himself to staff. He has since left the paper.

“Then, on 4 November 2014, a number of papers reported a blow to HSBC profits as the bank set aside more than £1 billion for customer compensation and an investigation into the rigging of currency markets. This story was the city splash in the Times, Guardian and Mail, making a page lead in theIndependent. I inspected the Telegraph coverage. It generated five paragraphs in total on page 5 of the business section.

“The reporting of HSBC is part of a wider problem. On 10 May last year theTelegraph ran a long feature on Cunard’s Queen Mary II liner on the news review page. This episode looked to many like a plug for an advertiser on a page normally dedicated to serious news analysis. I again checked and certainly Telegraph competitors did not view Cunard’s liner as a major news story. Cunard is an important Telegraph advertiser.”

In this short video, Oborne explains how news judgements were made based on advertising partners which severely distorts journalism. This is why we need Real Media.

3)  Cameron takes aim at working poor and ‘unhealthy’

While David Cameron claims to be on the side of the ‘hardworking’ he quietly slipped through plans for a pilot scheme beginning in April targeting and punishing those in low paid or part time work.

It is important to bear in mind that Cameron has garnered an environment of low pay and insecure employment with record numbers of people in in-work poverty. The Prime Minister has taken steps to remove power and rights from employees, and give more to employers. This allows large employers to exploit desperate workforces, keeping them on poverty wages, while company profits are subsidised by the state when topping up low pay. And for this, Cameron now plans to make the lives of employees even harder with the kind of bureaucratic delays, sanctions, punishment and hardship which halt people’s ability to function or get on in society.

“One change in particular threatens to scupper Cameron’s claim to be on the side of Britain’s hard working people. In an alteration to legislation that went largely unnoticed at the end of last month, the government introduced a pilot for 15,000 low-paid working universal credit claimants. Those participating in the mandatory scheme may find that their benefits are reduced if they do not actively seek to work more hours or increase their salary.

“The change is important because this policy goes beyond targeting jobseekers, the sick and disabled. If penalises those who are hard at work, maintaining part-time, low-salaried jobs

“Labour peer Baroness Sherlock said in the House of Lords before the secondary legislation was introduced: ‘If you have been on benefits and you get a job, you do not expect the department to ring you up at work saying, “Come and talk to me because you’re not working enough”.

‘I think that people who feel that they have escaped the tender ministrations of the jobcentre are going to be a little taken aback when they find that it starts following them to work.’

“Sanctions can apply of claimants working less than 35 hours a week on minimum wage (typically £12,000 a year) who do not comply with the scheme. Failure may include failing to attend ‘job focused interviews’ or failing to apply for a job that might bring in extra hours. Welfare reform minister Lord David Freud says “tougher” conversations will be had with claimants after two months.

“For claimants, one of the most worrying aspects of the programme – called work related requirements – is that it can apply to housing benefit (technically the housing cost element of universal credit). That’s potentially a chunk of your rent lost to the DWP if you do not take active steps to get a better-paid job.”

Cameron also announced that benefits would be cut for obese people and addicts who refused ‘help’, pretending he was a moral crusader by condemning more poor people as moral failures who need to be punished.  Meanwhile, Tory Minister Lord Green is protected and rewarded by Cameron and his party, despite his chairmanship of HSBC during heinous criminal activity remarked on above. He cares so much.

Read more about this story here.

4) Universal Credit Fact Sheet

HuffPost shared this fact sheet on the bewildering Universal Credit system, just in case there was any lingering confusion on the flagship scheme which is now being rolled out nationally.

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(Fact sheet created for HuffPost UK Comedy by David Schneider and David Beresford)

Daniel Pacey, who was featured in the government’s own film about Universal Credit, has since spoken out about the ‘nightmare’ system which left him with no money for six weeks before his first payment, and ongoing problems and delays to his claim. Pacey warned that Universal Credit is likely to push people into hardship.

5) Firefighters strike this Wednesday

Firefighters confirmed plans for a 24 hour walkout taking place this Wednesday, over continued fights for pensions and disputes on retirement age.

The strike comes after fire authorities backed down on promises to not reduce pensions for those failing fitness tests over the age of 55.

The strike begins at 7am on Wednesday with many staff joining a Fire Brigades Union demonstration in Westminster.

Read more about this story here.

by Emil Ghaffar

Free Milk is a “community run social space”, that was established in early October 2014. The founders of Free Milk established a space where members of the public can voluntarily learn, share and enjoy. It has housed public speakers, debates, poetry and experimental film all in the domain of politics and alternative ideology.

Free from any hierarchical structure, it is a collective and is subject to a flux of change in the people who run Free Milk. It is a pocket within our society where we all have autonomy. A place that elevates one from their sense of helplessness as it allows us to discover the true potential of our compassion and solidarity.

Image: Free Milk Facebook

Image: Free Milk Facebook

It is kept alive by the squatters who live there. One of the squatters highlighted how we are deprived of real communal spaces and how essential they are for our collective psyche. Our sense of community is incredibly important, especially today when we are experiencing an “epidemic of loneliness” and the public are increasingly feeling alienated from politics and ultimately themselves.

It runs purely on donation from the public such as money they make from home brewed ale or fundraiser gigs/parties which span from punk, post punk to drum&bass and reggae.  These are always intimate, refreshing evenings. Everyone seems to be walking around with a sense of awe about them as they cannot believe a place like this exists in the midst of the mundane.

The ethos of the place is powerful. Self-sustainability and equality is the core of Free Milk’s message -“It is a right to exist and have access to basic human needs”. It is a birth right that we should have free and ready access to food, water, shelter, education and love. All of these are provided by Free Milk to everyone.

The homeless are in need of this especially and this is why Free Milk runs classes for the homeless on the subject of how to stay safe, build shelter and stay strong. These classes are open to everyone because everyone has the right to know such things.  One of the squatters told me how shelter is everywhere, it’s just a matter of understanding how to find and build it.

His girlfriend and himself got into this way of life when they decided to “live off the land” in the countryside to resume our mutualistic relationship with nature. After experiencing this liberating way of life, they never went back to the life of material “luxury”. “We realised how easy it is to get back in touch with nature and break free from the consumerist trance imposed on us!”

We increasingly seem to be detached from our surroundings. Many of us being caught up in the  bureaucracy of life, forgetting the importance of loving one another and how to love oneself. Free Milk’s aim is to inspire people to release themselves from our claustrophobic monoculture and realise the power within.

Whilst talking to the squatters, I was approached by a man I had recognized from around the streets, begging for spare change. He told me how Free Milk had changed his life, making him realise that he can live independently from money.” I can tell you I’m free”, he told me, “The word home, is subjective. To me home is in the heart of others”. Maybe all we really need is human compassion and the necessities in life.

Members proudly partake in “skipping”, which is a term (that has risen throughout the media) to describe a human simply taking food that is waste to another. The food gained from skipping and donation is used in the open kitchen and cooks up a colourful mix n match gourmet feast! Free Milk works collectively with Food Cycle to provide cooked meals for everyone but mainly the homeless.

Despite it intuitively feeling a natural, morally sound activity, the government deemed it illegal. The government stated that it is illegal to take something that someone or something legally owns and supermarkets legally own their waste. Therefore it is seen as “immoral”. But clearly the true crime here is that a third of the world’s food goes to waste as 1bn people go hungry. This is a clear insight to the fallacious nature of our capitalist system which derogates us from our human nature. We are dehumanised by the corporations we subscribe to, as their capitalist nature advocates individualism and extends the gap in equality. Free Milk reminds us that we must abandon this ideology and reclaim our world. A world that is less circumscribed by the fear and greed.

 

An event at Free Milk

An event at Free Milk

 

Despite Free Milk’s activities being deemed illegal, the police have nothing but compassion and support for the social space. According to the squatters, the police recognise that what Free Milk is doing is vital for the surrounding community. That human compassion is an imperative within us and possibly deprivation of this provokes violence and crime into people’s lives. This was the case until recently. On 28th January 2015, the squatters were forced to leave the building due to their presence at the chapel being against the law. Surely the law should accommodate for communites and movements such as Free Milk and advocate the explicit good that they have done for the surrounding area. But the perspective may be considered dangerous to our imperialist oppressors who’s only concern is profit and economic progression, and Free Milk’s message opposes everything capitalism promotes. Free Milk has opened my eyes and the eyes of many to an alternative. We do not need to adopt the model the government has built for us to fit in. Free Milk’s central locus may be absent, but it’s message resonates throughout the people who have experienced it.

The true injustice of the anti-squatting laws is seen within the minorities they attack. Asylum seekers and families are most affected by these laws coinciding with the Legal aid bill receiving increased cuts and rigidity. The law is facile, not seeing that there are 635,127 empty houses in the UK which significantly exceeds the number of homeless people. Clearly, at least the homeless should be entitled to these houses becoming their homes. These spaces have so much potential, just as Free Milk has proved.

Communities like Free Milk keep spreading their knowledge of how we can live independently from the government’s restrictions. But for everyone in the UK to receive the basic necessities in life, which we are all entitled to, a government must cooperate with communities such as Free Milk. Ultimately the public must invest interest and open their minds to the ideology expressed in this truly communal, autonomous space – and other areas free from the constant need to buy, trick or gain from our purses or materialistic insecurities. It shouldn’t and needn’t be so hard to imagine or find. The message is potent and influential but there is solidity in numbers, we need more help at places such as Free Milk and more communities to arise sharing a common purpose.

You can contact Free Milk via their Facebook to get involved.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

Some sad news from Transition Free Press, but important messages about the media we want. Best of luck to the brilliant people at TFP. Am sure we’ll see them throughout the Real Media project.

Transition Free Press

1467299_627314473976940_658843296_nDear Readers and Supporters of Transition Free Press,

I am sorry to inform you that our innovative grassroots newspaper will not be published this year. We were hoping to relaunch this Spring with a bright new expanded edition but have been unable to raise sufficient funds to pay for our core costs.

For the past three years we have produced seven issues, all of which have documented the actions, skills and intelligence of Transition and affiliated progressive movements. Our purpose was to reflect the cultural shift many of us are involved in and to act as a communications tool for Initiatives and groups. Thanks to over 150 contributors, over 100 distributors, 50 advertisers and a collective editorial team, over 70,000 papers have appeared all over the UK – in shops, in cafes, universities and libraries, waiting rooms and market stalls. At public events and in private moments.

We have never…

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1) Six firms including Facebook and Google, made £14bn last year but paid just 0.3% tax

Image: PA/Reuters

Image: PA/Reuters

An investigation by the Sunday Mirror has revealed that Facebook, Google, Amazon, Ebay, Apple and Starbucks have paid less than 1% tax.

The companies reported revenue of £2.6bn but further income by sister companies have been collected and have avoided tax through havens. The total they are estimated to have made is actually £14.2bn.

“The Sunday Mirror also reported that there was £9bn black hole in corporation tax, helped along by corporate tax cuts brought in by George Osborne.

“These changes include a scheme “so blatantly a tax avoidance arrangement for big business” it is now being reformed after protests from Germany and the EU, said Richard Murphy of campaign group Tax Research.

“Meanwhile, ordinary people were clobbered with a 2.5 per cent VAT hike within weeks of the Tory-led Government taking office in 2010.

“A group of 17 leading charities, including ActionAid, Oxfam and the Equality Trust, are urgently calling on all political parties to support a Tax Dodging Bill.”

Further support for tax avoidance was shown by Mayor of London, Boris Johnson who defended Boots Boss Stefano Pessina’s tax avoidance, insisting that Pessina had a ‘duty’ to avoid tax for his shareholders.

Crucially, in this defence figures like Boris never highlight that this is money owed to the UK, that should be used for social good, public services and resources. Boris is attempting to make this acceptable, but Frankie Boyle put it succinctly enough on Twitter last year:

‘If you’re rich don’t look at it as tax avoidance, look at it as a children’s hospital buying you a pool.’

Read more about this story here.

2) Number of City backers doubles for Tories

The number of City donors has doubled for the Tories since 2010 with figures from the Square Mile, the Financial Times reported last week.

We’re sure this has nothing to do with the lucrative money grabbing policies for the city allowed by the Tories through corporate tax cuts and the free reign and support of loopholes and avoidance as above. But they clearly like something about them.

Image from Financial Times – read the full story here.


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3) 40 MPs on guest list for dinner with arms trade dealers

40 MPs were on the guest list for a dinner organised by trade organisation ADS, at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane, according to information passed to The Independent by Campaign Against Arms Trade (Caat).

Jeremy Vine gave a speech at the event for a five figure fee, and Business Secretary Vince Cable also attended the event.

Andrew Smith from Caat said: “It’s outrageous that the government actively supports and promotes this deadly trade.

“The fact that arms dealers were swilling champagne with over 40 MPs is a disgrace and shows the extent of the arms trade’s connections and political lobbying.”

Read more about this story here.

4) Costs of Universal Credit plans not to be revealed until after election

The costs of the troubled Universal Credit System will not be revealed until after the May 2015 election, according to information received by Computer Weekly.

The new system has faced trouble from the start, and was estimated to cost £12.85bn in 2012. However, since then problems and costs have mounted and the government has failed to release a new estimate for 2 years.

“The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which leads development of Universal Credit, and the Cabinet Office, which has responsibility for project oversight, have concealed the revised cost estimate since tearing up plans for the computer system in 2013 after two years of development – a process they called a “reset”. “

Minister for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, has also used taxpayer’s money to fight the release of information in the Courts, appealing several times.

This is a clear manipulation of information, in order to serve the current government’s PR in the run up to the election.

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Read more about this story here.

5) Hinchingbrooke hospital handed back to NHS

Hinchingbrooke hospital, the first hospital to be given to private management will be handed back to the NHS by the end of March.

Steve Melton, head of Circle Health who ran the hospital, was answering questions to the Public Accounts Committee on the hospital’s failures and a Care Quality Commission report that declared Hinchingbrooke as ‘inadequate’ – the first hospital to be declared so by the CQC.

Melton denied that the report gave the full picture of the problems.

Read more about this story here.

6) Number of teachers quitting classroom reaches 10-year high

The number of teachers quitting the profession has reached a 10-year high according to figures released by the Department for Education.

50,000 teachers quit in the year to November 2013 (the latest figures to hand), a 25% increase over 4 years.

Christine Blower of the NUT said falling working conditions and pay were pushing candidates away:

“A combination of unacceptable number of hours worked, a punitive accountability system, the introduction of performance-related pay and being expected to work until 68 for a pension has turned teaching into a less than attractive career choice.”

Read more about this story here.