Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Recreating community amid bankers greed

The economic crash engendered by reckless bankers has hit ordinary people particularly hard. Literally millions have been affected by the crash. This unjust pill has been all the more bitter to swallow as those struggling to scrape by through no fault of their own observe bankers taking bonuses and continuing with business as usual.

Stephen Hester, the chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, now 84 per cent owned by the tax payer, admitted that even his own parents thought he was paid too much at over £9 million a year. This type of remuneration has been all too commonplace as the burden for the banking crisis is dumped on some of the most vulnerable and low paid people in our society.

The organisers of Poverty and Homelessness Action Week this year (30/1 to 7/2) offer a blueprint for change that rejects the bonus style culture and presents a new vision based on rebuilding the community.

Over two million households are spending more than half their incomes on housing costs. Nearly a quarter of the country’s households (six million) suffer from stress or depression worrying about housing costs. In the last year a quarter of all households have had to reduce their food shopping in order to meet housing costs, and over a third have cut back on family treats. The National Consumer Council claims that five million of the poorest people have become the country’s invisible poor. These people are forced to scavenge for cast offs at market stalls and pick up damaged goods at supermarkets. The balance of diet for people caught up in this type of poverty is not good.

The manifesto titled Enough seeks to address many of these problems. Among the suggestions are that on housing local groups can organise an empty home search in their area. There are 80,000 empty homes in England spread across every local authority. “If even a quarter were brought back into use, it would make a difference to homeless and badly housed people,” said Alison Gelder, chief executive of Housing Justice, a lead organisation in the campaign.

Local authorities have a list of empty properties that can be accessed by a freedom of information request. Estate agents also have local knowledge of empty homes and there are websites for property auction houses. Alternatively people can search out empty homes down streets. Once identified these can be reported on The council can then be pressured to get them back into use.

A community exchange is another idea, whereby an event is organised and people bring along different things to exchange in almost barter style.

The more ambitious could organise a community assets audit, which involves people coming together and sharing the skills and assets that people have that can be used to create a sustainable livelihood. The five main areas are financial, human, social, public and physical.

As mentioned earlier, the banking system has served the country poorly. Many of those now struggling have been forced into debt. Credit unions are an increasingly popular way of confronting this problem. These organisations are run in the community, offering lending and borrowing facilities available for those on the lowest incomes. Trade unions, Churches and community groups could all get involved in this type of banking. (The association of credit unions can be accessed at

The idea of a Post Bank run through the post office network, guaranteed by government and operating along equitable lines is another initiative that can help families. The idea has been championed by the Communication Workers Union, Federation of Small Businesses and Countryside Alliance among many others. Millions of people do not have access to banking facilities. This limits their social movement in this society. A Post Bank guaranteed by government could help remedy this situation, as well as offering reliable services to everyone.

Some areas like Calderdale, Totnes, Lewes and most recently Brixton have organised their own currencies. The notes can be exchanged locally for goods. These currencies help reconnect and rebuild local businesses and trade by bringing people together. In Lewes, local traders run a prize draw with the serial numbers on the currency being entered.

Growing food in allotments and gardens is another initiative that can help families survive. There can be exchange of crops organised on a local basis. Land share is another positive community based initiative whereby those with plots of land they don’t use can be brought together with others who want to grow vegetables.(see

These are just some of the ideas that can help revive that spirit of community. This country is crying out for forces and structures that can bring people together rather than split them apart in atomised virtual prison. Poverty and Homelessness Action Week is a good time to start.
* For more information see

Friday, 15 January 2010

Failure to close Guantanamo marks bad year for liberty

One of the first actions of newly elected US President Barack Obama was to order the closure in 12 months of the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The deadline expires on 22 January and there are still around 200 detainees being held in the infamous holding centre.
The closure of the camp was an important totem for the Obama administration that wanted to signal to the world that the US was returning to the confines of international law. It would no longer be overseeing detention without trial and the practices of torture deployed by the previous administration.
As with many other things though, Obama has been fought tooth and nail by the American right over his efforts to shut Guantanamo. Attempts to release any of the detainees into America or indeed hold them in US prisons were resisted. Few other countries have proved willing to accept any of the detainees.
Most recently President Obama seemed to throw in the towel completely agreeing that up to 60 detainees could remain detained long term without trial.
This final action amounted to the President signing up to the trading of liberties for security club. It is this equation that lies at the heart of the injustice of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and indeed it is the real fault line that underlies the so-called war on terror.
Guantanamo Bay has become symbolic of the criminal practice of picking up people from anywhere around the world, transporting and then holding them without trial for years on end. It has also been a centre for the practice of torture.
Guantanamo Bay drew the public focus but a network of similar less public centres has been established around the world.
British citizen Binyam Mohamed was rendered to Morocco where he was tortured before being taken on to Guantanamo Bay. Another British citizen Moazzam Begg was picked up in Afghanistan and taken to Guantanamo Bay. Brighton resident Omar Deghayes was picked up in Pakistan and taken to Guantanamo Bay were he was detained for five years on the premise that he was someone else.
The basic injustice that lies at the heart of Guantanamo style justice is the inability of individuals to hear of what they are accused in a properly constituted court of law. The military tribunals deployed at Guantanamo Bay are not fit for this purpose.
This process of detaining people without trial has also been replicated in this country, only in a much less visible form. Here a number of men were picked up in December 2001 after the passing of the Anti-terror Crime and Security Act into law. They were first held in prison and later under control order style detention in their homes. The lives of these individuals and their families have been made so unbearable in a hardly disguised effort to get them to leave the country on a “voluntary” basis. To this day there are a number of individuals still under control order style house arrest as their various cases work their way through the appeals system, no doubt eventually finishing up in Europe. This has become known as “Britain’s Guantanamo.”
“No one should be detained unless they have been before a jury or panel of judges in a fully accredited court of law. Everyone has the right to be dealt with under the law,” said Bruce Kent, who has visited a number of the individuals in detention.
The cry of the men being held in the shadows in Britain is the same as that of the Guantanamo Bay detainees, namely to be brought before a properly constituted court and be told of what they are accused. If they can then answer that charge to the satisfaction of a jury they should then be released.
It is this basic ancient right of habeas corpus that has been trashed over the past eight years since the attacks on America of 11 September 2001.
It is sad to see the promise of the Obama presidency with regard to safeguarding civil liberties and restoring the rule of law being so quickly extinguished. Liberties are now regarded as a luxury that can be taken away from any citizen at the will of a ruler. The President it would seem has signed up to the mantra of dictators the world over, namely give me your liberties and I will provide security. This approach is a recipe for disaster in the long term