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Monday, 30 December 2013

Prosecution should not be default position for Leicester City Council

Leicester City Council is bringing a growing number of people before the courts and prosecuting them for housing benefit fraud.

In most of the cases, the people concerned are being prosecuted for over-payments they received during periods when they were entitled to the benefit.

The over-payments and subsequent allegations of fraud arise because the people concerned neglected to inform the Council of a change or changes in their circumstances.

In some of the cases, the neglect is neither intentional nor deliberate but arises because some benefit claimants tell one Government department about the change in circumstances and assume the information will be shared with other relevant departments.

I believe that in cases such as these, prosecution shouldn't be the primary aim of Leicester City Council. Instead, the Council's primary aim should be to recover any over-payments that would have been made.

Although the Council can and should concentrate on recovering over-payments, I get the impression that it won't do so because it is more concerned with making an example of the people it is prosecuting than it is with recovering the over-payments.

The punitive stance the Council appears to be adopting in cases such as these is disturbing because, in more instances than not, the people who fall foul of the rules surrounding how housing benefit is awarded are already some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community.

Instead of punishing the poor and the vulnerable, the council should be making more advice and support available to them.

In the long run, the punitive stance the Council is adopting is counter-productive because punishing, prosecuting and securing convictions against all people who fall foul of the rules can lead to social and substantive injustice.

It can lead to loss of employment. For example, some companies and enterprises will let go of employees who have been convicted of benefit fraud, notwithstanding the fact that the conviction was secured after the employee joined the company while the "crime" itself occurred before that and had no bearing whatsoever on the work the employee was doing or how the employee was performing.

Convictions for benefit fraud also make a lot of the people who receive them unemployable because very few employers will take on a person who has a criminal conviction.

The convictions, and through them, Leicester City Council, thus trap people in the benefit system and make it extremely difficult for individuals and families to break out of poverty.

The convictions damage lives, aspirations and prospects.

I believe a better alternative would be for Leicester City Council to work proactively with those who have fallen foul of benefit rules and help them understand the rules as well as work with them to ensure that they repay any sums they would have received over and above what they were entitled to.

Taking them to court should be a last resort. It should be an option that should only be used when the people concerned refuse to pay back the over-payments.

Prosecution shouldn't be the default position.

*An earlier version of this article appeared in the Leicester Mercury letters page on 26 September 2013.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Mandela event was just as he would have wanted



On December 14, I attended the memorial event that was held at Nelson Mandela Park as an amateur filmmaker, with the intention of documenting the event from the perspective of one of the community choirs that were performing.

Going over the footage I got from the event, I am convinced that had Mandela been there to witness it, he would have been really pleased with the memorial.

He would have seen the event as a seamless whole that started in the park with township music by Leicester jazz ensemble, Afro City Swingers, who set the tempo for the event and gave it ambiance.

Afro City Swingers were followed by city mayor Sir Peter Soulsby, who spoke about how Leicester is connected with Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid that he embodied.

A number of young people from the St Philip's Centre read from Nelson Mandela's writings and spoke about what Mandela means to them, while my own MP, Jon Ashworth, who described Nelson Mandela's achievements as "extraordinary, urged people to keep Mandela's memory alive by supporting the causes that he had championed.

Jon Ashworth was followed by The Rt Rev Tim Stevens, the Bishop of Leicester, who led an interfaith prayer for Nelson Mandela.
I am certain Mandela would have appreciated the heckling Bishop Stevens received from the secularists who argued, even as the Bishop was speaking, that the Church had hijacked the event.

Madiba would also have appreciated the grace and tact with which Bishop Stevens received the heckling.
Afterwards, Mandela would most certainly have told the bishop, the politicians and the secularists that his funeral would not have been his without the politics, without the demonstrations or trappings of faith, just as it would not have been his funeral without the arguments.

He would then have joined Red Leicester Choir and would have shown off a few of his dance moves.

He would also have joined in on Freedom Walk and in the singing and dancing that accompanied the walk.

He would have loved the drums that were waiting at the cathedral and would have joined Bobba Bennett in the dancing and then, because he does not have Bobba's energy, at the earliest possible opportunity he would have gravitated towards Paulo Carnoth, Carol Leeming and the drummers and tambourines so as not to make it obvious that he was about to pull a disappearing act, before finally disappearing into the cathedral (on the face of it to join the others who were gathered inside but in reality to catch his breath and to catch a rest).

He would also have loved the service that was conducted in the cathedral because the service was beautiful.

And, Leicester Amika Choir? Leicester Amika Choir would have made him think he was still in South Africa.

Afterwards, he would have said there wasn't anything about the memorial he would change because the memorial, as a whole, was beautiful. It was just as he would have wanted it.

*This article was featured in the Leicester Mercury letters page on 23 December 2013.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Entertaini​ng Strangers makes the Not the Booker Prize longlist

Jonathan Taylor's novel, Entertaining Strangers (Salt Publishing, 2012) has been longlisted in The Guardian's Not the Booker Prize.

Parts of the novel deal with the Great Fire of Smyrna 1922 and how British, American, French and Italian warships and cruisers dealt with the refugees the conflict created.

Jonathan Taylor was at the University of Leicester on February 28 where he and University of Leicester sociology lecturer and author of Refugee Women: Beyond gender versus culture (Routledge, 2012), Dr Leah Bassel gave readings from their respective works and took part in a discussion on the theme, “Refugee Women's Experiences in Fiction and Non-Fiction: a reading in two parts”. The event was held as part of the 2nd University of Leicester Refugee Week.

You can vote for Entertaining Strangers to be shortlisted here.

Related books:

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Thursday, 21 March 2013

Cambodia: Home as a Site of Struggle

Today I attended a captivating and highly informative seminar hosted by the Geography Department at the University of Leicester.

In the seminar, Dr Katherine Brickell, a Lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, talked about the research she has done (and is doing) in Cambodia with families that are being evicted from their lands and homes to make way for other land development projects.

I found the seminar captivating because it offered insight into the reasons behind the forced evictions and the effect that these evictions are having on relationships, on livelihoods and on families' sense of belonging.

Dr Brickell explained that her presentation was based on "Home S.O.S: Gender, Violence and Rights in Cambodia", a book that she is working on which looks at what we understand a home to be; the relationship between that space and gender; and the dynamics and pressures that are in play within that space which can lead to homes being made, unmade and remade. In the Cambodian context, the forced evictions and the manner in which women are responding to the evictions are part of the confluence of these pressures.

The presentation showed how Cambodian women are fighting back by organising, protesting, lobbying and campaigning against the evictions. Dr Brickell emphasised the peaceful nature of the protests and showed how the State (and the men in the women's lives) are responding to these protests.

The presentation had particular resonance for me because it reminded me of Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out Rubbish) where, in 2005, the Zimbabwean government demolished what it described as illegal structures but which, in fact, where people's homes and businesses. The exercise led to the destruction of several thousands of homes, displaced over 700,000 people and destroyed livelihoods at a time when the country was experiencing extremely severe economic challenges.

Although Dr Brickell's presentation was specific in that it focused on a particular group of women in Cambodia and showed some of the forms and ways in which they were trying to reclaim space, the presentation also made me think about activism and protest movements in general and about the place of music, song, dance and flowers in these movements. These elements were and/or are present in the Cambodian women's protest. They are also present in, for example, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) protests and demonstrations while the white poppy is increasingly beginning to be associated with the peace movement in the UK and beyond. And I remember Anna Cheetham and others singing Down By the Riverside outside the drones factory on Scudamore Road right here in Leicester. And I still think the designs, art and anti-war songs that came out of the protests against the Vietnam war are among some of the most powerful the world has ever seen. 

When, a few hours later, I got back home, I noticed that my friends at Her Zimbabwe had posted a set of photos on their facebook page from the launch of SheMurenga: The Zimbabwe Women's Movement 1995-2000 (Weaver Press, 2013), a book by Shereen Essof, which, as the title suggests, looks at the what happened in the women's movement in Zimbabwe from 1995 until 2000. Going over the photos and reading a review of the book got me thinking: Are there things the Zimbabwean women's movement can learn from Cambodian women and vice versa?

Possibly related books:

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Related articles:

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The 2nd UoL Refugee Week

February 25 - March 3, 2013

The second University of Leicester Refugee Week starts on 25 February and runs till 3 March.

The purpose of the week is to raise awareness about what it means to be a refugee as well as to raise awareness about how refugees and asylum seekers are living in the United Kingdom and to raise funds for Leicester City of Sanctuary, a local charity that provides practical support to refugees and asylum seekers.

The week builds on the success of the first student-led Refugee Week that was held at the university last year and will see the university host a series of public events around issues relating to refugees and asylum seekers.

Programme Summary

February:
  • 25: Panel Discussion/Debate on Gender, Sexuality and the Refugee Experience (speakers will include a practising solicitor; an academic; a social worker; and, a charity worker); Attenborough Lecture Theatre 3, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH; 6.00pm - 8.00pm
  • 26: Society Event (Syria: Uprooted! a case study on the Syrian conflict with particular emphasis on how Syrians are being displaced, where they are going and how they are being received); Attenborough Seminar Room 002, University of Leicester; 6.00pm -8.00pm
  • 27: An evening with the Zimbabwe Association Choir (feat. Film Screening, Leicester City of Sanctuary presentation, and a Zimbabwe Association Choir performance); University of Leicester, Attenborough Building, Attenborough Seminar Block, 2nd Floor, ATT 208; 4.00pm - 6.00pm
  • 28: "Refugee Women’s Experiences in Fiction and Non-Fiction: a reading in two parts” feat. Dr Leah Bassel (University of Leicester, Department of Sociology) and Jonathan Taylor (poet, novelist and De Montfort University creative writing lecturer); University of Leicester, Attenborough Building, Attenborough Lecture Theatre 3; 6.00pm - 8.00pm
March:

Detailed Programme

Monday, February 25, 2013
"Gender, Sexuality and the Refugee Experience": Panel Discussion
Venue: University of Leicester, Attenborough Lecture Theatre 3
Time: 6.00pm - 8.00pm

  • What is a refugee?
  • What is an asylum seeker?
  • How does a person become a refugee or an asylum seeker?
  • Does a person's gender and/or sexual orientation have any bearing on whether a person can apply for asylum or not?
  • What are some of the things that can be said about the manner in which the UK's immigration and asylum system responds to asylum applications that centre on questions of gender and/or sexual orientation?
  • How easy or difficult is it to prove that one is a genuine asylum seeker?
  • Does the asylum process have any effect on how individuals, families and/or communities live?

These and other questions will be the subject of the panel discussion that will take place on the first day of the 2nd University of Leicester Refugee Week.

Speaking at the event will be:
  • Bushra Ali, Head of Immigration at Thaliwal Bridge Solicitors and recipient of the 2012 Leicestershire Law Society Solicitor of the Year Award as well as recipient of the 2012 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Award;
  • Vanessa Bettinson, a lecturer at De Montfort University who is currently teaching on "Gender and Sexuality in Relation to Claims for Refugee Protection" in the final year Immigration & Refugee Law module at De Montfort University;
  • Cathy Stevenson, a Refugee Services Manager with the British Red Cross in Leicester; and
  • Jawaahir Daahir, Managing Director of Somali Development Service; co-editor of Somalia to Europe: Stories from the Somali Diaspora (Leicester Quaker Press, 2010), and a qualified social worker who worked with asylum seekers and refugees and their families for many years.

The panel discussion will be chaired by University of Leicester student, Max Beck who is also president of the Leicester United Nations Society.

The discussion will be followed by a Q&A session in which the panelists will take questions from the audience.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Syria: Uprooted! a presentation on the Syrian Conflict and Refugee Experience
Venue: University of Leicester, Attenborough Seminar Room 002
Time: 6.00pm -8.00pm

  • How many people have been displaced as a result of conflict in Syria?
  • Which parts of Syria are affected?
  • What (if anything) do those who are being displaced have in common?
  • Where are they going?
  • What are they finding there?
  • How are they being received?
  • To what extent are things like gender, ethnicity and political and/or religious beliefs and practices playing a role in this displacement, migration, reception and settlement (or lack of)?

These and other questions will be the focus of Syria: Uprooted! a University of Leicester Politics and International Relations Society presentation on the Syrian conflict.

The presentation will pay particular attention to how Syrians are being displaced, where they are going and how they are being received. The presentation will also look at the extent to which factors like gender, ethnicity and political and/or religious beliefs and practices are playing a role in this displacement, migration, reception and settlement (or lack of).

The presentation will be followed by a Q&A session in which the University of Leicester Politics and International Relations Society will take questions from the audience on the presentation.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013
An evening with the Zimbabwe Association Choir
Venue: University of Leicester, Attenborough Building, Attenborough Seminar Block, 2nd Floor, ATT 208
Time: 4.00pm - 6.00pm

The evening will open with two short films that show some of the realities of life for asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.

This will be followed by a presentation from Pam Inder, who chairs Leicester City of Sanctuary, on the challenges refugees and asylum seekers face in the UK and the role individuals and voluntary sector organisations play in supporting refugees and asylum seekers.

The evening will culminate in a performance by members of the Zimbabwe Association Choir who will share some of their stories, music, song and dance. Many members of the choir are survivors who escaped persecution and violence in Zimbabwe.

Thursday, February 28, 2013
Refugee Women's Experiences in Fiction and Non-Fiction: A reading in two parts
Venue: University of Leicester, Attenborough Lecture Theatre 3
Time: 6.00pm - 8.00pm

  • What are the causes of forced migration?
  • How easy or difficult is it for refugees to find places where they can feel safe?
  • If at all they do find such places of safety, is integration really possible or even desirable?

Two writers - one a poet and a novelist and the other a sociologist - will approach these or related questions from different perspectives and in different ways.

Dr Leah Bassel – a Sociology lecturer at the University of Leicester and the author of Refugee Women: Beyond Gender versus Culture (Routledge 2012) – will open the evening by giving a talk on migration and the politics of refugee women's integration.

She will be followed by Jonathan Taylor – a poet, novelist and a creative writing lecturer at De Montfort University – who will give a reading from his novel, Entertaining Strangers (Salt Publishing 2012).

The two presentations will be followed by a Q&A session in which the two writers will take questions from the audience.

Friday, March 1, 2013
Networking Evening: *plus Red Leicester Choir
Venue: University of Leicester, Attenborough Building, Attenborough Seminar Room 001
Time: 6.00pm - 8.00pm

This informal evening will bring together University of Leicester staff and students, members of the Leicester Migration Network, members of the public, refugees, asylum seekers and supporting organisations.

The Networking Evening will be a good opportunity to make connections or to develop and build on links with relevant individuals, groups and organisations.

The evening will culminate in a performance by the Red Leicester Choir which, as choir member, Jan Wild-Grant puts it, sings "songs of struggle, songs of freedom and songs for the fun of it" from all over the world.

Saturday, March 2, 2013
‘Simple Acts' and fundraising
Venue: Various
Time: Various

University of Leicester students are encouraged to continue supporting the UoL Refugee Week fundraising efforts and to do simple acts like learning a few facts about refugees and asylum seekers; writing a letter or an email about refugees and asylum seekers; having a conversation with a refugee or an asylum seeker ...

Sunday, March 3, 2013
'Simple Acts' and fundraising
Venue: Various
Time: Various

University of Leicester students are encouraged to continue supporting the UoL Refugee Week fundraising efforts and to do simple acts like learning a few facts about refugees and asylum seekers; writing a letter or an email about refugees and asylum seekers; having a conversation with a refugee or an asylum seeker ...

*For more information, visit the UoL Refugee Week facebook page or contact event organiser, Iqra Mazhir.