Archives For Interviews

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.”

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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.

——————–

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.”

Thomas Barlow – @tbarls

Like many people I have been in and out of work over the past couple of years.

Every job is temporary, or low paid, or unspecified hours, or all of them together.  And all of the jobs come to an end.

Recently I decided that I was going to stop this cycle and follow my dream of becoming a writer.  This is it,  this is what I will do, or die in the process.

So when I was told, suddenly, by my advisor, that I had to come in every day to the jobcentre for the next two weeks at least, I finally felt confident enough to speak back.

Though not at the time I was told.  As my interview was ending my advisor told me

“Oh, and you have to come in every day for the next two weeks, starting tomorrow”

“Really?  Oh ok” I replied meekly and got up to go.  Oh come on Barlow, you are supposed to be a Welfare rights journalist, try again!

“Actually, um,” I sat down.  “Err, could you tell me why I have to come in?”

“Oh I don’t know, we don’t have time to cover that here.  I have booked you an appointment with your special advisor to help you sign off as you are going to declare yourself self-employed.  You can ask them”

“Ok, when will I meet them?”

“Three weeks.”

“Is this really necessary?  I just want to sign off with the right support, do I need to come in?”

“If you don’t come in you’ll be sanctioned.  It is as simple as that.”

I half expected her to say ‘I don’t make the rules…”  Or “Just doing my job…”

*****

I go home.  Raging.

It is the straw.

There is no explaining it, but all the humiliation and fear and shame of years of sporadic employment wells up within me, and makes me unfathomably angry.

From the outside it may seem perfectly reasonable.  You don’t have a job, you should do what you’re told, and shut up.

And that is part of the fear and misery of being unemployed.

You don’t feel like you have the right to be treated like a human.  It is perfectly fine to be treated like cattle, for the mere crime of being unable to become a wage slave.

I am signing off.  Forever.  All the years of being treated as ‘less than’ finally bubble up through my usually meek and polite barriers.  I am going to talk about this.

*****

I arrive at 10.30am, on the dot.

“If you can just take a seat here, I will sign you in.”

“Why am I here?”

“If you can just take a seat…”

“Why am I here?”

“Has no one explained?  Well I am afraid I can’t tell you.  All I know is if you don’t sign this and sit here, we can take your benefits away.”

“You mean my right to live?  Why?”

“I’ll see if I can get someone to answer your questions now, then.”

*****

I am introduced to my special advisor.

“So why am I here?  This isn’t in my jobseekers agreement.”

“Quite frankly Mr Barlow, we can do what we like with you.  You have to come in when we tell you to, or else we will sanction you.”

“You mean you will take away the means for me to live.  Fine.  You have the gun to my head, why am I here?”

“You shouldn’t see it as a gun to your head.  This is an opportunity.  I have loads of clients who wish they could be in here daily.”

“Well I don’t.  And it is a gun to my head.  You can take away all of my money, make me homeless and allow me to starve.  You know sanctions kill people right?  It’s a nice word for a dirty act.”

“Look Mr Barlow, quite frankly we have got the powers we wanted.  Not everyone sees it that way, but I do.   There are people who do spend their time actively job seeking. If you are not willing to search for a job for 35 hours a week…”

“We deserve to die?”

“Well…”

“Because that’s the crux of it isn’t it?  You are saying that in a world of plenty, where there is way more than enough to go around” and there is you know, more homes than homeless, more food in the bin than the hungry could eat, more energy in the world than we all could use  “that if I refuse to be disciplined by you and the state, then I should die.”

“I know what you are saying, I used to be a job seeker myself”  They always have been, job advisors. “I know how hard it can be.  I was refused benefits for months, you don’t have to die.” Nice change of tack.

“How did you get through it?”

“I lived with my mum who supported me.”

“So what about people without family, or without means, or without space, or spare cash?  I mean isn’t this the point of Welfare?  It is a way of looking after each other, because we all have – or should have – more than enough. It isn’t supposed to be disciplinary.  It is not supposed to be something you punish people with, force them to do unwaged work, or make them feel small.”

“That’s not what I want to do.  I want to help people back into work.”

“But that isn’t what you do any longer is it?  You have to find ways to take our means to live away from us.”

“Well it is not what I want to do.”

“OK.  So why am I here again?”

“Because if you don’t come in you’ll be sanctioned.”

“Right…”

*****

I spent the two weeks writing articles and emails on my phone in the job centre.  The computers didn’t have access to email (though they did have access to facebook), so i just made do.

After making a fuss about the pointlessness of the whole exercise, I was left to my own devices.

My fellow ‘jobseekers’ (I would prefer to think of them as human beings, but there we go), spent the two weeks bemusedly looking at Facebook and LinkedIn, before occasionally asking if they could leave to go on a job interview.  They twiddled their thumbs and kept their heads down.

I guess that is what they want from us all.

*****

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On 14th November a jobs fair was held in Chingford, the constituency of Iain Duncan Smith.

Under threat of sanction and checked for letters from the jobcentre, unemployed people from around the borough attended (According to the PCS union, there has been a 350% increase in sanctions for those on sickness benefits, and 920,000 people on JSA have been sanctioned in the year up to March 2014).

Despite being the poster boy due to open the fair, IDS snuck in at 08:30am and scarpered way before the 10am start. Outside a small herd of police manned a handful of protestors. We went along to speak to some of them. Thanks to Lucas Hinchey for the film work here.

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Kam Sandhu

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

(Please don’t forget to sign the petition for Our West Hendon. Click here.)

On Saturday, Barratt Homes, Barnet Council and the Metropolitan Housing Trust staged an exhibition in the West Hendon Community centre, to showcase their plans for ‘regeneration’  of the estate.  The uninspiring display saw several upright banners detail floor plans, estate agent descriptions, promises and ‘benefits’ for the area.  The pictures of the proposals bore the usual clean, cold and expensive ‘luxury’ apartment complex scenes reserved for city types with big balances.

Outside the small exhibition were the people who didn’t fit into the developer’s vision: local residents. The West Hendon community were out defiantly staging a protest against an array of broken promises from all those who stand to profit from the new plans, and the ignorance of their local councillors to their voices, their needs and their lives.

photo-3

“Out of 680, we can probably, if we’re lucky, we might have about 60 of the original dwellers left on the estate,” says Jasmin Parsons, a local resident and one of the people behind the Our West Hendon Campaign.

“Not forgetting that the first lot that are being shifted are going onto a traffic island. When they go on that traffic island, for at least another eight years, they got traffic whizzing round, they got rats, they got pigeons, they got to deal with maggots, they got to deal with exhaust fumes, paint fumes, none of that has been [dealt with].

“When it was agreed that they would move in there, it was agreed that all of that would disappear. Their answer to it now is, ‘well if we keep pushing the rents up, they might move’.”

Broken promises are a common thread for West Hendon residents (‘‘Every single thing has been trashed and reneged on”) as Jasmin leads me to a document that details just some of them, including an excuse by Barratt homes that it would be unviable to build the 40% recommended amount of affordable housing, instead capping it at 25%.

photo-2

Similar excuses were made at the Heygate Estate in Southwark, and likely in many places around the country, all communally squeezing out affordable homes from their plans, as well as the people who desperately need them. Recommended rates and even statutory minimums of affordable housing are easily wavered in a housing economy that no longer cares for what the community needs but what will earn the quickest, highest buck. It also demonstrates the measly excuses given to shaft an entire community in the name of profit.

“They’ve deliberately shifted out a lot of secure tenants and put in long term council tenants on temporary tenancies and left them there,  in a deliberate move because they are then ensuring that over 250 of them will be shifted out, anywhere that they wanted to,  and those properties have already been earmarked for private sale.

“The secure council tenants who are moving into the property on the traffic island, which this Christmas will be renamed as Barratt Grove, will be moving into Barratt property. The agreement is they will be able to remain secure council tenants for as long as they are in council property. So now that it will no longer be council property, at any time the council will be able to say ‘we’re not paying the rent anymore’.

“We’re condemning our kids to permanent private poverty. At the end of the day, this is public land, we all own it. So why are councils allowed to give it away or sell it. Who gave them permission?”

Jasmin Parsons

The campaign has seen little help or understanding from the local councillors, who have apparently already demonstrated their view of the local residents, and the nature of their private interests see them siding with developers over the people that have resided on this estate for years.

“One in particular, (Cllr) Tom Davey, made a statement and I make it absolutely clear to everyone he’s turned round and said to us ‘We don’t want your kind in this borough, we want you out. If you want affordable housing, move out the borough.’

“Cllr Cornelius has also stated ‘we don’t want you here, you’re parasites, you use up the facilities. We don’t want people like you using up the facilities.’

“(Cllr) Hugh Rayner (Mayor of Barnet), was caught. He rents out 18 properties – 15 which he owns, some more with his wife, he’s a private landlord. He raised the rent three times in one year on the social tenants because he knew they were claiming housing benefit. And he sits in on how they distribute the housing benefit.

“When it was brought up, they just changed the rules ‘Oh, it’s no longer a conflict of interest’.”

Jasmin Parsons

When searching for details in a case like West Hendon’s, the corruption and discrimination required by local representatives to push these projects forward, come to light.

Whilst I am at the exhibition, several protestors explain to me that Councillor Hugh Rayner had brought contracts to tenant’s houses with witness signatures presigned, and even approached the children of tenants to sign in place of their parents, without the parents’ knowledge.

Image: Our West Hendon Facebook - Protestors stage a sit-in at the Barratt exhibition

Image: Our West Hendon Facebook – Protestors stage a sit-in at the Barratt exhibition

Jasmin mused over reasons why the plans had been pushed on, and as a long-term resident of the estate, she already seemed familiar with the results of Tory party policy.

“Is it Cameron? Because it’s Tory? Thinking we can spread out and now gentrify the area. We pushed out the Labour voters, we can put the Tory voters in so this can now become a solid tory seat.

“The Tories deliberately push people to buy a house to put people in the market to put people into debt. When she (Thatcher) brought [Right-To-Buy] in, people could already buy their own properties. You had to live in your property – which only houses were allowed to be sold by the way, no flats or maisonettes – you had to be living there for 10 years before you was entitled to buy. You had to also ensure that you were the one who was able afford the mortgage. You couldn’t sit there and say ‘if someone else comes in they’ll do it.’

“When the Tories put that Right to Buy through, the first thing that happened on this estate was that two flats were immediately sold to someone living in South Africa that had never even set foot in this country. That was 2 council properties.”

Jasmin Parsons

Many are left wondering how many of these new flats will lie empty for months as investments for the rich or as second, third, tenth homes while local residents are displaced, left in insecurity or made homeless. A deep madness lies in this system. But it is seeing the local community come together.

Last week, a campaigner locked themselves to the front of the construction site, stopping trucks from entering. Locals have turned out early in the morning to demonstrate and have been building plans and materials to continue to halt the process. Tomorrow sees a meeting at the Town Hall over a vote of no confidence in Cllr Cornelius. And the Our West Hendon campaign is just getting started. To the dismay of those looking to profit from the West Hendon estate (those who were betting that the deep inequality of London housing by now means that social housing tenants would lie down and take any fate), local residents are taking direct action, building cases against their councillors and informing each other about what’s going on.

“When we were nippers, we lived on council estates. We would’ve liked more but we were happy with what we’ve got. WE’RE happy with what we got. We don’t have to have more. Why is it we’re told you gotta have thisyou gotta have that. That’s a capitalistic state to make sure that you pay for something.”

Jasmin Parsons

One of the biggest problems West Hendon residents face (and why they need public support) is one we all face on a national level when it comes to the housing crisis. Councillors and most of our MPs are cut from the same cloth; owning several houses, many are landlords, many have mansions – pushing them to sympathise with those with similar private interests. This is why our MPs gawk far more at the prospect of a mansion tax than at the reforms and regenerations that displace thousands of the nation’s worst off. More than ever, the solution to the housing crisis has to come from a united effort and pressure from the public.

Support the West Hendon campaign. Sign the petition!

As Cameron takes to the stage today at the Tory Party conference to deliver a speech that is undoubtedly doused in the talents of the best speechwriter that hard taxpayer’s cash can buy, the content will nauseatingly and unrepentantly describe the maintenance of the status quo – disproportionate levying on the poor whilst funnelling of money to the acquaintances of our government goes entirely unchecked and unmentioned. 

So instead, we take a refreshing look at some policies the guys over at Wear Red believe we need most. Doubt Cameron will find these in his notes.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 09.44.34

What policies or changes you feel are most needed to create a system that fights for public interest?

  • A ban on professional lobbyists would be a good start
  • A ban on any minister taking up any position with a company that benefited in any way from legislation enacted or decisions made by the government they were serving in, for 10 years after leaving office.
  • MPs and Lords prevented from voting on anything that directly affects things they have a commercial interest in – as it is in Local Government (witness the passage of the Health and Social Care bill – 206 parliamentarians who voted for the act had recent or current financial ties with private healthcare concerns).
  • Obviously we need PR
  • A more progressive tax system, and the closing of the myriad of loopholes that exist that allow businesses and individuals to avoid billions of taxes each year.
  • More power to the regions (assemblies) and local authorities including the power to set local taxation.
  • Renationalisation of essential services such as power, transport and water.
  • New employment laws that compel companies to have Union and worker representation on the Board and in decision making.
  • Investment in new green technology and renewable energy to end our reliance on fossil fuels with the communities that support them benefiting directly by the way of community dividends…out of all the bad things going on in the world, Global warming and ecosystem destruction is the thing that probably scares us most.
  • This is without mentioning multiple bills brought in by the coalition government we would repeal such as the Health and Social Welfare Bill, charity gagging orders, unpaid workfare schemes, spare room subsidy (bedroom tax)…the list goes on and on…

..These are just a few.

Image: Wear Red

Image: Wear Red

How can people find out more about you? Are there any plans or events coming up in the next few months?

We don’t generally run events or have any plans to form a party – we are just two ordinary blokes with families, jobs etc who wanted to try and make a tiny bit of difference and take the fight back to the faceless elites that seem to be taking over. As our numbers grow, who knows what might be possible in the future.

If people want to find out more and lend support, they can like our Facebook Page

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

Wear Red started as a defiant act against the state funeral (costing millions), of a woman who’s indifference to that very same state became the reason for widespread devastation in the interest of private profit for a few. We caught up with the people behind Wear Red, who continue to spread information on government hypocrisy and continue to garner support, to find out more.

Image: Wear Red

Image: Wear Red

Can you tell us about how Wear Red started? And why red?

Wear Red started in the city of Plymouth as a protest against the public cost of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral at a time of supposed austerity…(the initial idea actually was borne out of a conversation between Paul (one of the admins) and a Church of England vicar who commented that it would be good to see people wearing red on the day of her funeral in memoriam of the peoples lives she ruined, and as a reminder to David Cameron and the Conservatives that there were a lot of people out there who not only despised her and her legacy, but saw the hypocrisy on display in the current government’s policies).

Paul then contacted James (the other admin) and asked him to help set up the protest group on Facebook called ’10 million for Thatcher’s funeral wear red in protest’. We just invited our friends initially, but neither of us expected what happened next…

We obviously struck a chord because within a couple of days we had over 1000 pages likes. A couple of days after the MSM had picked up on us and were trying to get statements and interviews off us (presumably because they were looking for the counterpoint argument about the waste of public taxes on a millionairess’ funeral). We were featured on Channel 5 news and ITN with screenshots of our page, and we were even mentioned in Australia, Japan, Norway, Sweden and others. After that exposure our page likes jumped from 1000 to nearly 6000 in a week and the reach of our better posts were in excess of 2 million people.

Image: Wear Red

Image: Wear Red

We should point out our protest was always non-violent and was promoted as something that anyone could do anywhere in the country. We asked people to send us pictures of them wearing red in support of our protest. The cover picture to our page is made up of a fraction of the images we received, from people of all ages and occupations.

Our posts were designed to be evocative and to show the blatant hypocrisy of the British government, who were on one hand preaching the need for austerity but with the other were happy to blow millions of taxpayer’s money on the funeral of a Tory icon. Our objectives from the beginning were to present news stories which wouldn’t get much attention in the right wing dominated media in a tabloid ‘infographic style’ format. We also ensured we had references and links attached to our posts so viewers could trace the source if they wanted.

After the funeral we asked our readership whether we should carry on spreading information about the morally bankrupt decisions of the UK government and big businesses. We were met with a resounding yes from our page followers so we then set up our current Facebook page ‘Wear Red Stand up and Be counted’, which about 1500 from the old page liked immediately. From that we have steadily grown (despite all Facebook’s efforts to filter our posts and make us pay them money) and we are now about to reach 10,000 page likes.

Image: Wear Red

Image: Wear Red

Why Red?

Red of course being the colour of anger at what Thatcher did, and Cameron is doing; as well as being universally recognised as the colour of the left wing which Thatcher and others thought they’d eradicated from British politics. (This has led to many many accusations that we are a stealth wing of the Labour party which is untrue – we are just 2 ordinary people who are disgusted at the way the country is being taken over by unaccountable commercial interest at the expense of the rest of us). We never really set out to become social media activists, and actually neither of us support the Labour party. We both hold left wing views but feel disenfranchised since the Lib Dems and Labour sold out to ‘the blob’ and abandoned their core principles. Tony Blair and Nick Clegg… We hate you.

We are both fairly environmentally minded and you will often see posts about climate change, fracking and other issues. Our views are probably most closely aligned to the Green party at the moment, although we don’t generally promote this as the page is more about exposing government hypocrisy.

Another core value of Wear Red is freedom of speech which means unlike the Conservatives, Britain First and other right wing groups, we allow criticism of what we are saying and do not censor material unless it is grossly offensive or inflammatory. We’ve posted articles to the Conservative facebook page, only to have them swiftly removed minutes later. (They don’t like it up ’em). We are also completely opposed to UKIP and their brand of ‘lowest common denominator’ populist politics which they use to disguise their real turbo neo-liberal agenda and bigoted view of the world…God help us if they ever get into power!

Image: Wear Red

Image: Wear Red

Much of the information supplied on your page is not widely reported in media, though it concerns important social issues, and you back up your information with sources. What are your thoughts and feelings on why the media has failed to report on these things as you have, despite the information being out there?

Well clearly the mainstream media (MSM) and the BBC (presumably with the threat of Murdoch being held over their heads by the Tories) are promoting the same right wing agenda, which aims to engineer (through disinformation and biased reporting) the consent of the UK electorate to support the free market neoliberal way of thinking and perpetuate their control over pretty much every aspect of our lives. Obviously anything that goes against this ideological narrative is ignored, or if it can’t be ignored, it is spun out of all recognition. (Remember the 60,000 strong march in Manchester in support of the NHS which the BBC did not headline, but instead listed it under local news)…Why are we paying our licences again?

Image: Wear Red

Image: Wear Red

You have made it clear that you have no affiliation to any political party. How do you feel about voting and the voting system? And why is it important to you to distance yourself from any of the parties?

Our FPTP system does not deliver representative democracy full stop. It is a truism that in general elections for most of us, votes don’t really count with only a handful of constituencies really helping decide who we have in office.

Clearly we need full proportional representation as it is the fairest electoral system out there. Of course thanks to Nick Clegg not insisting on this and accepting “a miserable compromise” which the electorate resoundingly rejected, we suspect this will not happen for many more years.

Look out for tomorrow’s post, detailing what policies Wear Red say we need as David Cameron announces his at the Tory Party Conference.

Support Wear Red here.

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

“I’ve noticed certain people treat me like a child, so I tend not to tell people,” explains Danielle Aghanian, 31, from Leeds. “The sales advisor asked, ‘Do you work?’ I said no and that I claim disability benefit. I was there with my girlfriend. He then started redirecting the conversation at her.” 

Danielle was trying to get a better deal on her phone contract at Carphone Warehouse. They took her bank card and ran a credit check which was approved. They asked her a series of questions including what disability she had. Danielle responded that she did not have to answer that, as they were not medical professionals.

The sales advisor then said that they did not give anybody with a learning or mental disability a phone contract on the grounds of the “diminished responsibility” a client may have, and refused to grant Danielle a contract.

Unfortunately, Danielle’s experience is not likely a unique one. This week Who Benefits? released research revealing that benefit claimants are receiving verbal and physical abuse as well as restrictions to employment, housing and social involvement.

“15 per cent of those receiving benefits said they had experienced verbal abuse because they are getting support from benefits, while four per cent reported that they had been physically abused. This amounts to nearly 800,000 people facing verbal abuse and 200,000 facing physical abuse for claiming support*. The abuse comes in addition to a raft of challenges that they may already face such as illness and disability, low wages, or caring for a loved one.

“A total of 16 per cent said a landlord or letting agent had refused to let them a property and 18 per cent said they’d been treated less favourably by a potential employer or had difficulty accessing a bank account or financial services because they were claiming benefits.”

This research speaks volumes of the real effects of claimant-bashing media and political discourse which is now unpicking claimants’ ability to get on in society. If claimants are being made more disenfranchised, more unable to get homes, more unlikely to enter employment, simply for being claimants, then our system is seriously hurting itself, and we are risking the isolation and despondency of a whole section of our society.

Danielle sought advice from Mind’s legal line and a solicitor. Carphone Warehouse have been very unhelpful since, going as far as trying to discredit Danielle by remarking in a letter to her that she was behaving erratically, despite witnesses in the shop being able to testify otherwise.

Danielle has noticed other examples of negative attitudes which have perforated the conversations she has with neighbours or old school friends.

“It’s not where I’m living now. It wasn’t abuse. They just turn their noses up at you. As soon as you mention you’re on benefits, they think you’re a sponger. But no, I’m not dossing about.

“One person I know calls me a constant “lady of leisure”. It became a joke, but after a while it was just upsetting.”

Danielle has not worked full time since 2008. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2006 and she also suffers from anxiety and depression. However, Danielle has tried several ways to overcome and manage her illness, whilst still remaining active. Danielle exercises through cycling and playing football and has volunteered at a local horse and donkey sanctuary part time.

In July of this year, Danielle did return to full time work for a month, but this was too much too soon, and Danielle remarks that social pressure did push her to take on the work.

“I applied for 50-60 jobs in the space of about three months and I only got one letter back from any of them to say I was unsuccessful. I know it was because of the gap in my employment.

“But I did get an email asking for a telephone interview, and I thought it’s what my Mum and Dad want. It pushed me to take the job too soon.”

Danielle believes that social media and tabloid coverage of welfare has helped shape some of the attitudes prevalent in the research released this week:

“Some people believe anything, especially if it’s got a picture next to it on social media. A lot of people, I think, are just misinformed. I wouldn’t say it’s people who are uneducated but more people who socially and economically uneducated about what’s going on. ….They need to put themselves in other people’s shoes.

“You’re limited to what you can do. I don’t want to be on benefits for the rest of my life. But I’m glad I live in a country where if you get ill, have a mental breakdown, get cancer, have an accident, then there is help. And the people who say that claimants are spongers, they’re entitled to that help too, and they need to remember that.”

Danielle briefly talks about her decision to stop taking medication two and a half years ago, through fears of the side effects of osteoporosis and over-subscriptions of dosage.

“You get this diagnosis and they write you off. It’s very difficult to live with, but you can manage. But the medication they give you, such heavy doses, and that’s part of the reason people can’t cope and can’t work, because they’re drowning.”

Given this glimpse of insight into her decision, you might be forgiven for skimming over all the strength, time and evaluation it might take to decide to manage this way. You might be forgiven for mistaking the brevity in which Danielle explains this, for a representation of the size of the issue. The medication and care given to those suffering with ill health, physical or mental, is a huge subject full of thousands of questions.

This is an example of the challenges and trials claimants may already face. Unfortunately, these issues receive markedly less coverage in media and politics. It is doubtful claimants require the additional stresses of not being able to secure housing or even a phone contract, neither should they be laden with a general assumption that they must somehow have the time and ability to deal with it because they are out of work. Danielle is an example that people can find  ways of progressing if they are given time, support and possess the confidence to find their own way of coping. Added restrictions to basic social needs and discrimination are detrimental to this.

If the current attitudes and system is making the lives of those who are already facing challenges harder, if our politicians are promoting an ideal that people should be going into work but then preside over a system that inserts greater difficulty for those out of work to put themselves in a position where they can take on employment, then we need to address the madness of that concept.

For anyone in a similar position, Danielle passes on some advice:

“Get in touch with Mind, they’ve been so helpful. Or Re:think, they can give you general advice, and all sorts of specialist advice.

“Know your rights. Speak to citizens advice bureau. If you think you’re being discriminated, speak to someone and see what you could do.

“Don’t feel bad for being on benefits. If you’re poorly, then you need to concentrate on getting yourself better so you can do more.

“I’m lucky I live in this country. I’m gay, and I don’t have to suffer huge discrimination for that. The odd comment, but nothing compared to other places. And the welfare state and the NHS, people are always moaning about both these things but they’re the best things in the bloody world.”

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

Last weekend, Disabled People Against Cuts set about starting a protest in the form of a three week camp at Westminster Abbey, to run till the end of Parliament in action against the closure of the Independent Living Fund. The camp disbanded soon after it began, when the Dean of Westminster Abbey John Hall, called police to the scene to physically remove those chained to the gates. We spoke to Rob Punton from DPAC about what happened at the camp, the Church of England, the ILF and the future of the campaign. Here in his own words, Rob explains what happened and why he is forced to continue with action.

Image: @TheSilentAnon

Image: @TheSilentAnon

The Independent Living Fund…

“I was one of the first people to claim the Independent Living Fund. I’ve been claiming the ILF since 1988. Why it’s important to me is because it allows me to carry on with my independent living, and it allows me to do the social part of living not just the personal care part. It allows me to go out with friends. It allows me to go out and take part in community activities. The money has not been ring-fenced. We’re all scared we’re all going to end up with just home care and being marooned, if you like, in our own homes, not able to get out and take part in community activities and carry on with a fulfilled life.

“It’s like a care package. The local authority pays two thirds of your care package and the ILF gives you a third, but as we know most local authorities are struggling so if we lose the ILF, a third of our money could be lost.

“It was actually Maria Miller who announced it in 2010. She said the ILF was going to close in 2015. We’ve been fighting for this to get it stopped for five years, and when the people took the thing to High Court and won the case we thought we got a victory, but of course, Mike Penning MP decided to ignore what the High Court said, which has forced us really, to take more action.”

The Camp at Westminster Abbey

“I was down at the camp but I was locked out on the main street. I didn’t get inside the camp, I was outside the gate.

“The camp ended because we went to Westminster Abbey because we made the assumption that the Church of England, who had already spoken out about the government and about the austerity cuts, was supportive and would allow us to camp out on their property. But of course, as soon as we got there, John Hall, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, came to say that we weren’t welcome on his property and called the police to come and physically remove us. So that’s why there was 300 policemen for 100 protestors. They kettled everybody in and refused to allow food, water and medication in to the protestors so they were forced to leave early.

“I was actually out on the gate with my PA and a protestor came over and asked us to pass his medication over. We tried to pass it over. I tried to push this bag back over and police actually pushed my PA and pushed this guy needing the medication apart and he was really aggressive towards people, and like I said refused people water, food and medication.

300 police kettled 100 protestors

300 police kettled 100 protestors

 

“Inside the camp there were 100 protestors, and there were 300 police. And that was just normal police. Later in the afternoon they sent ones armed with guns into the camp and they were marching around with guns halfway through the protest.

“The Dean was cowering in his cathedral behind closed doors and wouldn’t even come out and face the media. He just locked the doors to the Abbey and let the police deal with things.

“We’ve been shown that they’re the Church of the Establishment. That’s what CofE stands for now, because they obviously don’t give a monkeys about the people of Britain. They talk about standing up and fighting for normal people, but when it comes to doing things on the ground, they cower away. We’re disgusted and we’re considering writing a letter putting forward a proposal to get the Dean of Westminster removed from his post because we don’t think he’s right. He talks about Christian morality but he hasn’t shown much Christian morality in this situation.

“What’s even more alarming is that this man is supposed to be the chair of a disability organisation but when it came to supporting disabled people in the street, he turned his back on them, so it doesn’t say a lot about the way he looks at disabled people.”

The Media

“Mainstream media belongs to the government anyway. So the BBC and ITV and people like Sky only report what the government want them to report. Obviously, the austerity cuts that everybody is facing are not just being reported to the general public so we have to use social media to get it out there.”

Image: Rob Punton

Image: Rob Punton

What now?

“There’s another demonstration on Friday 4th July outside Parliament and we’ll continue to escalate the situation and take it forward. Luckily we’ve got some good support form Occupy and got some links with community groups to work together to bring down this government and coalition.

“The alternative of losing is dire consequences for everybody because the government have proved they have no regard for anyone at all.”

If the closure of the ILF went ahead…

“There are thousands of disabled people who have got no power. What you’ve got to remember is that while people like myself are going out and protesting, a lot of people are not in the position to do so and they are the ones being socially imprisoned in their own homes and being institutionalised and isolated from society. And we’re worried that because of the growth of urgency, we’ll leave a lot more people vulnerable and open to abuse in their own homes.

“I think we have to stop blaming the most marginalised people in society for society’s problems, because while we’re getting angry about benefit claimants we’re losing the NHS. It’s the banks and businesses that need to take responsibilities and we need to ensure that big companies like Amazon and Boots pay their taxes. If everybody paid their taxes, the money would be there to help people. We need to have proper assessments from people who know about the people who need assessing and we need to start talking to disability organisations and disabled people to include them properly and get social justice for everybody and not just the powerful, rich and the strong.”

Find out more about DPAC here.

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by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

In the second part of our interview with a Jobcentre adviser we talk about sanctions and the Work Programme. Read the first part of the interview here.

Image: powerinaunion.co.uk

Image: powerinaunion.co.uk

Have you ever experienced any use of target culture for sanctioning? If not, what are you told about sanctioning? If yes, how are you told to sanction and by who?

“This is the type of thing that would not be out of place in the novel ‘Catch 22’. We are constantly told by managers ‘there are no targets, only expectations.’ However, the expectations are based on the highest performing local offices or Districts. So, say I work with a colleague who sanctions because they get some sort of sick power kick from it (I do know some people like this, there are some in every office).  They might refer 7 people for a ‘doubt on their actively seeking’ per day. In your team meetings or one-to-one, it will be mentioned, and staff will be asked why they haven’t got as many. Regardless of what the DWP official line is, nobody is ever reprimanded for referring too many. The only time that would come up is if a large amount of the referrals were allowed (not sanctioned) by the Decision Maker because they were poor quality – i.e. the evidence sent over was poor or the person had actually shown they had done sufficient searches for their Jobseeker’s Allowance. Some staff are getting scared that they aren’t doing enough and they will be marked in the ‘must improve’ category. Enough warnings and you could be out of a job. So Iain Duncan Smith will tell you that there are no targets and if any manager is still using the term target they will get a reprimand. However, I have seen the District tables which clearly show the direction an office is travelling in with regards to sanctions and referrals. Offices which are lower than the highest performing office will be told they must aim towards similar numbers or else. They are too crafty to put anything in an email, or at least most of them are.”

What have been your experiences of the success/failure of the Work Programme? Have you referred many people onto it?

“I have referred hundreds. I am unable to emphasise enough what a massive con and waste of taxpayer’s money this is. Daily, I speak to those poor souls on this mad scheme and many who have returned after a 2 year stint. How journalists have not scooped this, I do not know.  The payment by results contract is an incentive to do nothing. Look at it like this; you are a private company paid to get people into work. You have a financial investment. Who do you invest that money in? Mr Jones who is highly educated and has only recently been made redundant? Or Mr Simpson who has been out of work for years and needs everything from numeracy and literacy training to PC skills? Mr Jones may only need a £50 interview suit or most likely no intervention at all – he will find work on his own. Bingo! The Government will pay you £2,500 if he starts work and stays there for 6 months. You could invest a hell of a lot of your staff resources and profits in getting Mr Simpson to a job ready state, but it’s a huge gamble. You get a higher reward but your losses are higher if he doesn’t find work. Private companies do not like this kind of risk. This is why it is now without question that Work Programme providers ‘park’ the harder to help customers. I have seen this relentlessly for the past couple of years and I do not think anyone could deny this is what happens. I ask customers what the WP is doing for them and they tell me they are lucky if they get a phone call every few months. But, if this person finds a job on his own (which does happen) the WP provider could get £12,000+.”

5) Are you told to give a full description of the help the jobcentre can provide in the form of money for travel expenses to job interviews, or courses that are available? If so, how many take this help up? If not, why not/by who?

“It is not advertised openly. The hope is that the jobseeker will fund expensive training themselves. If they ask then we will put the case forward to pay it. The District fund for this is finite so each case must be looked at on merit. Sometimes the procurement process is so slow the jobseeker will borrow the money from relatives to gain the training they need. The travel to interview expenses have never been openly advertised, as it is hoped that they will fund this themselves. I must say that the chances of funding from DWP are a lot better than for those on the WP.”

What one policy would you change to help jobseekers?

“A tricky one. I couldn’t nail it down to one thing as so much is currently wrong. You see most of the things we do are dictated by Ministers and Senior Civil Servants. At most, they pop in to sit by you for an afternoon to see what you do. They then think they know how to improve or change things but they don’t. It’s all half-arsed hair-brained back of a beer mat type stuff. No one feeds back up the line when something is not working.  The DWP is full to the brim of yes men. Take Universal Jobmatch; staff have been saying that it’s garbage since it was introduced. Staff locked out of it, jobseekers and employers cannot use it. It’s loaded with duplicates and non-jobs but we are told by DWP Press Office that it has revolutionised the way people look for work.  We are told we must use it and must sell it to Jobseekers.”

“But back to your question, I would scrap the Work Programme.  I would invest the millions spent on this into real training for Jobseekers.”