Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Imagine the Books She Might Yet Have Written

TWO items, one amusing, one sad. Let's start with the lighter side. It might be just paper talk, but Euan Blair, the son of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, reportedly fancies standing for Parliament himself, and is setting his sights on Bootle, on Merseyside, regarded as one of Labour's safest seats for the next general election.

Joe Benton, the sitting MP who has represented the constituency for 24 years, is 81, and though he has said he intends standing again in 2015, there is a move in the local party to deselect him and find a younger replacement. That sounds reasonable. But Euan Blair?

The Liverpool Echo reports there are rumours, though it also quotes an unnamed Labour source as saying: “There’s no way Labour is going to lose Bootle, but the idea of parachuting someone like Euan Blair in would be a disaster, a joke."

The joke comes as Blair senior has been boasting how proud he is of going to war on Iraq, and making a new claim to replace his old Weapons of Mass Destruction story, this time saying he saved Iraqis from a war like that in Syria.  Around Falluja, where people still suffering the effects of Blair and Bush's war have been fleeing bombardment by the Iraqi government they left, they may not be forthcoming with gratitude to Mr.Blair for saving them from anything.

I must admit I haven't followed young Euan's career until now.  It was not his fault who his Dad was, nor that he was sent to a posh school instead of the local comp. When it was reported that he'd been found lying drunk in Leicester Square, that was not as bad as his father's lying in office, though if he had not been at the posh boys' school he might have had the kind of mates who found him a cab home instead of running off leaving him there.

Anyway, years go by, and at 29, Euan has worked for merchant bankers Morgan Stanley, he is married, and he and the missus have moved into a six bedroom Georgian town house in Marylebone with a price tag of £3.6million. But as with his student days and bachelorhood, Mum Cherie the barrister and QC still helps out with housing. "The new Mrs Blair is not the Mrs Blair listed on the property deeds. Land Registry documents have revealed the six-bedroom Georgian town house in Marylebone is joint owned by Euan and his mother Cherie Blair".


If young Mr.Blair has opinions of his own about the Iraq war or anything else he seems to have kept them to himself so far, but there may have been a clue otherwise at the wedding.

The bride's step mother, weather woman Sian Lloyd, was not invited, and she guesses it was because she was against the war. 

Cherie Blair grew up in Waterloo just up the road from Bootle, and this is being touted as Euan's connection with the constituency, though local left-wingers wonder what he knows about conditions in the constituency or what experience he has campaigning on issues like jobs or housing. To be fair, Euan Blair did a bit of political work when he was in the States. For the Republicans.

Anyway, Labour's selection procedure is under way, and we'll know whom they have chosen by May 30.

And now to the sad news. Author Sue Townsend, best known as the creator of troubled teenager and sensitive though aspiring yuppie Adrian Mole, has died aged 68, on April 10, in her home town Leicester. She had been ill for some time, and had been dictating her work to her son after suffering blindness as a result of diabetes.

Sue Townsend came from a working class background and had known poverty first hand, and though she found her metier poking fun at the Thatcher years and after in her humorous writing, she was serious in her political views. In a 2009 Guardian interview with Alex Clark, she described herself as a "passionate socialist" who had no time for New Labour. "I support the memory and the history of the party and I consider that these lot are interlopers", she told Clark.

Her views on the Welfare State, and the way it was coming under attack without having yet fulfilled its purpose, were beautifully expressed in a set of essays, drawn both from experience and keen observation, and published as Mr.Bevan's Dream. (Chatto and Windus, Counterblasts, 1989) Her ideas were considered worthy of an intellectual analysis by Jurgen Willems, which can be read on line.  His study makes thoughtful reading, though for pleasure I'd re-read Sue Townsend's little book.

Sue Townsend was also a no-nonsense republican (not the kind Euan and his Dad worked with) and  in The Queen and I  she imagines Her Majesty transferred from Buck House to a council house in Leicester. Helen, a friend in the Labour Representation Committee who unlike me had the pleasure of meeting the author recalls:
 "I saw ST during an English day I had to go on during A Levels and she related the story of her own poverty i.e. having no money left due to non-arrival of giro and how she was reduced to asking the benefits officer if he could lend her a fiver - this is also what happpens to the fictional Queen in the Queen and I. It should be essential reading for the Osbornes of this world.
Also when I was an English  teaching assistant in Germany in the nineties I did the Adrian Mole books with my sixth formers and as well as laughing (just to prove Germans do have a sense of humour!), they seemed to get the image of Thatcherite Britain Sue Townsend created and could discuss how it could be changed. R.I.P. Sue.

In one of the Adrian Mole books - it may have been Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction - her eponymous hero writes to Tony Blair asking about a refund for having cancelled a holiday in Cyprus believing what the PM said about being in range of Iraqi missiles. That was Sue Townsend's way of bringing things down to earth, and it was a way of speaking a true word in jest.
Here is what she said in person, and not through her fictional character:
    'In the build-up to the Iraq war I lost the ability to read due to diabetic retinopathy. Instead I became a close listener. I heard Blair distort and manipulate the English language so that, like Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, for him a word "means just what I choose it to mean".

    The phrase "weapons of mass destruction" was ubiquitous. You knew he was talking it up. He had been given a grain of sand by the intelligence services and didn't stop talking it up until it was a boulder, hurtling, Tom and Jerry-like, down a mountain, flattening everything in its path.

    I wept tears of shame, rage, and pity as British and American planes dropped their "strategic" bombs over Baghdad. I wondered if Blair was sitting on a sofa with his family watching shock and awe. Did they share a monster bag of Revels, and could he look his children in the eye when the transmission was over? I have never recovered from the shock of that night.

    I have been told my fixation with Blair and his involvement with the invasion of Iraq is unhealthy – "that was all back in the day", get over it, "move forward". But I can't. I am a professional cynic, or sceptic if you prefer, but deep inside I romanticised the qualities of this country and its government. We had a reputation in the world for the moderation of our political system, the fairness of our judiciary, and, whether entitled to or not, we marched up the hill and built a fortress on the moral high ground. That lies in ruins now.'

    Sue Townsend, writing in September 2010


 (thanks to another LRC comrade, Mike Phipps, for bringing my attention to that).

I don't suppose it is a joke to the people of Bootle, least of all the local Labour Party members, if they should really find themselves saddled with Euan Blair as their candidate or MP.

Sadder still, we no longer have the genius who invented Adrian Mole, socialist and humourist Sue Townsend, who would have been able to write about it. 


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Friday, April 04, 2014

Juliano Died a Martyr, but his Work goes Marching on

 'My dream is that The Freedom Theatre will be a major force co-oporating with others in generating a cultural resistance carrying on its shoulders universal values of freedom and justice'           


THREE years ago today, on the afternoon of April 4, 2011, Juliano Mer Khamis stepped out of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp, occupied Palestine, where he worked. He got into his old red Citroen car, with his baby son Jay, to go home.

As he set off, a man in a balaclava came out of an alleyway and told him to stop. The man then shot Juliano five times, before escaping back down the alley, throwing away his mask. Juliano, the theatre director, was killed, though Jay survived. The killer has never been caught. Nor is it known for sure who was behind this murder and what the precise motives were, though Juliano's friends and colleagues have their suspicions, and they are not the only ones.

Juliano Mer Khamis was 52 when he died, the same age as union leader Bob Crow, and like Bob at the height of his career when taken from us. Though the two men came from different countries and backgrounds, both were loved and are sadly missed; and both were hated by reaction, because though they worked in different ways, both were men of the Left.

Juliano Mer Khamis was an Israeli citizen, and his mother was Arna Mer Khamis, who came from a Zionist family and served in the left-Zionist fighting force the Palmach (as did Ariel Sharon). In the 1948 war she drove a jeep. It was only after the war, when the forces of the new State were used to clear Bedouin in the south, that the young woman began to ask herself what she supported, and look for other ideas.  This led her to the Communist Party, and it was at a party conferene that she met Saliba Khamis, who came from a Greek Orthodox family. He was active in the party in Nazareth, where it came to lead the city council, and he wrote article for the party paper al-Ittihad. 

Arna had been a teacher, but was sacked for marrying an Arab. Welcomed by her new family, she was less well regarded by her Jewish relations, and badly treated in hospital when Juliano was born in 1958. After her death from cancer in 1995 it was almost impossible to find a cemetery where she could be buried.

Although Saliba Khamis was a communist in politics he was not so progressive or liberal as a Dad. Juliano later said he first learned about politics ‘at the end of my father’s belt’. As a youth he tried to identify as an Israeli, serving in the army with his peers and joining the paratroops. For a time he tried dropping the Khamis from his surname.  But he could not close his eyes to the crimes and casual brutality of  the Israeli military, and his breaking point came when he was ordered to beat an elderly Palestinian man at an army checkpoint. Juliano refused, and punched his officer in the face instead. He was thrown in the slammer for refusing orders, and then dismissed from the forces.

Juliano's subsequent career had its ups and downs, from acting on stage and in films to bumming around at home and abroad, drinking, experimenting with drugs, and sleeping on a beach. He was brought to a more stable life when he met Mishmish Or, an Israeli costume designer, from misrahi (Eastern Jewish) background, moved in and became stepfather to her 2-year old daughter Keshet. Then he was persuaded to follow in his mother's footsteps, working in Jenin.

Arna was working with Palestinian mothers, trying to maintain education after the Israelis had closed schools. She took toys and banned literature to people's homes. She taught art, and invited Juliano to teach drama. In 1993, they started the children's theatre, on the top floor of Samira Zubeidi’s house. Juliano was there constantly, directing rehearsals, and filming his mother and the children for what became Arna’s Children. Samira Zubeidi was shot by an Israeli sniper. The theatre on their house was demolished. But by then Juliano Mer Khamis had become a fiend of Zakharia Zubeidi, her son, who went on to become commander of the Al Aqsa brigade of Palestinian fighters.

In 2004, Juliano brought out the film Arna's Children, which showed how the children of the camps, growing up under occupation, became fighters and martyrs. People in Jenin celebrated, and among them Zakharia Zubeidi. But afterwards, he and Juliano Mer Khamis discussed the fate of the second Intifada, and how Palestinian society and culture could resist and rebuild, rather than depend on its armed heroes.  They decided to restart the theatre.

Not everyone liked what they did. Some distrusted co-operation with any Israeli, even one like Juliano who declared himself "100 per cent Jewish and 100 per cent Palestinian" and had been on the run with their own. They resented any distraction from "armed struggle", though Juliano never condemned the fighters, and Zubeidi could hardly be accused of cowardice. Then there were those in the Palestinian Authority who didn't like anything critical of their own collaboration or corruption,and may well have taken umbrage at what young Palestinians were making of Orwell's Animal Farm.  Last but not least, there are conservative religious elements, those who object to any modern culture in their society, and are scandalised by talk of teenage boys and girls acting together on stage, and tales of immodest dress, drink and drugs - not pausing to ask where these tales originate, and whether the occupiers might be stirring the pot.

All the same there is a gap between dislike and deciding to kill somebody, and it is not often that Palestinians attack someone who comes in solidarity. Juliano was careful not to cause unecesessary offence to religious people. But as with Vittorio Arrigoni, the Italian solidarity activist murdered in Gaza, suspectedly by a salafi group, there are religious fanatics, possibly not even Palestinian, for whom the concept of solidarity against the Israeli occupation is meaningless, compared to their desire to impose their own reign of terror under the banner of religious "purity".

Whatever the circumstances of Juliano Mer Khamis' martyrdom and the motives of the murderer, or whoever sent him, it has not stopped Juliano's work. Besides its many fans and supporters in Palestine, the Freedom Theatre has won friends and admirers overseas, and a UK Friends group is preparing fundraisers and a tour in Britain.





ARNA IN LONDON   at a vigil on the steps of St.Martin le Fields, near Trafalgar Square, remembering Palestinian children killed during the first Intifada. The woman in white with the red flower is Arna Mer Khamis.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jeremiah Duggan: the Case that Will Not Die

 FAMILY and friends of a British student killed in Germany eleven years ago are determined not to let the matter lie. Jeremiah Duggan's body was found early on the morning of March 27, 2003,by the side of an autobahn outside the city of Wiesbaden, where he had gone to attend what was billed as a peace conference, opposing the war on Iraq.

Police in the state of Hesse accepted an explanation according to which the 22-year old had dashed into traffic and been struck by two vehicles, in a deliberate suicide bid.

Jeremiah's mother Erica Duggan, who took a 'phone call from her clearly terrified son less than an hour before his death, has never accepted this account of events. In a message posted on Facebook yesterday she wrote: 

Dear Jeremiah,
Tomorrow it will be eleven years since you were killed. I know from your last words to me that you were harmed. Of that I am sure. They stole your life. A full investigation of the cause and circumstances leading to your death has not yet been carried out.
On the 28th May 2014 at 9am in HM Coroners Court, 29 Wood Street, Barnet, EN54 BE there will be a preliminary Inquest Hearing to assess the situation.
We honour you and will never give up on our quest for .justice...

We wait for the Wiesbaden Authorities to act on the compelling evidence that Jeremiah was in the LaRouche offices and under attack prior to his death. We wait for people to no longer collude with a cult to cover up what really happened.

Jeremiah, aged 22, had been studying at the Sorbonne, in Paris, where he accepted a copy of the paper Nouvelle Solidarite from a regular paper seller, and they discussed the imminent US-led assault on Iraq. Jeremiah agreed to attend an anti-war conference hosted by the Schiller Institute in Germany.

He probably did not know that both the paper he had bought and the cultural-sounding Institute were fronts for the activity of a cult led by Lyndon LaRouche, a one-time American leftist who veered sharply to the Right, meanwhile acquiring a name for organised thuggery against genuine left-wing groups in the States. Despite some wacky theories and a prison sentence for fraud, La Rouche also seems to have acquired influential allies and considerable funds.

Former members of the cult allege it used brainwashing techniques. But supporters' loyalty is reinforced by belief that their leader survives in defiance of conspiracies against him, which have involved the Queen and Raisa Gorbachev, as well as more familiar agencies like the CIA, MI6. and Mossad.


At the Wiesbaden conference, Jerry Duggan is said to have been perturbed by speakers blaming the threat of war and nuclear holocaust on the British and the Jews. "But I am a Jew!", he reportedly protested. He was still interested in attending a cadre school scheduled to follow the conference. But before that, something happened to make him 'phone home, and his girlfriend, telling her and his mother that he was "in big trouble" and desperately wanted out.

According to the version of events accepted by the German police he then went to the outskirts of Wiesbaden and decided to take his own life by rushing out into the road. An investigator hired by the Duggan family discovered the police had not even questioned the drivers of the two vehicles that were supposed to have hit the young man, nor made proper forensic examination of the vehicles or Jeremiah's clothes. He suggests Jerry was beaten up somewhere else, then taken to the autobahn where his body was found.

Friends who knew Jerry Duggan in Paris say he was a cheerful, sociable person, who was happy with his studies and hoped to travel and become a writer. They just don't buy the "suicide" story and believe something bad must have happened to him in Wiesbaden.
 Rather than assist the family in its search for the truth, the LaRouchites have made allegations about Jeremiah Duggan's psychological state and claimed that the Duggans were being used by a conspiracy involving the Tavistock Institue and Tony Blair. 

Because the German authorities refused to re-open the investigation the Duggan family have gone as far as the Appeal Court in order to get a fresh inquest here. Their case has been dragging along through postponements and disappointing delays. But having been unable to save her son, Erica Duggan is determined not to let her quest for justice die.  .   


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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Welcome Back on the Street

 The latest issue of Jewish Socialist magazine has hit the streets somewhat later than planned, in time for Saturday's demonstration against racism, but having gone to press before the editors had time to consider saying anything about Ukraine. Perhaps that's just as well.  While the great powers have thankfully hesitated so far to go to war, no such inhibition has restrained those friends on the Facebook left who rushed to take sides, throwing far more heat than light on the matter, and denouncing each other in terms that suggested imminent fisticuffs, not least among those gathered in the name of Left Unity.

That new grouping does get a mention, along with the People's Assembly initiative, in the latest Jewish Socialist.

More important however, is the magazine's focus on fighting all forms of racism and chauvinism, wherever they're found.  Roma Gypsies proudly waving their flags were at the front of Saturday's march in London, and Jewish Socialist has an original feature by Margaret Greenfields on how Jews and Roma are coming together in Solidarity in Budapest, as well as a report on resistance to clearances of Negev Bedouin.

Colin Green asks whether Israeli military operations on Gaza have been used as a testing ground for new weapons, while a new book on Anarchists Against the Wall is reviewed by Ross Bradshaw.

From generation unto generation, some memories evoked by last year's 75th anniversary statement on Kristallnacht and today's attacks on minorities are published, as is a report by two thoughtful school students on their visit to Auschwitz.

How the Left should confront the insidious growth of 'respectable' anti-immigrant racism exploited by Nigel Farage's UKIP, tipped to do far too well in coming Euro-elections, is  considered by veteran campaigner Don Flynn; while critical scientist Dave King alerts us to the sinister resurgence of research attempting to link genetics and I.Q. , a familiar way of trying to justify inequality.

All work and no play makes Yetta and Yankel into dull girls and boys, but fortunately Jewish Socialist maintains its claim to wider interests, with Dave Rosenberg visiting an exhibition on Jews in football, and Mike Gerber introducing us to hip-hop artist and poet the Ruby Kid.   A moving poem by 'the Kid' about the horrific 1911 Triangle  Shirtwaist fire in which over 100 garment workers were killed might suitably be footnoted by reference to the item by Paul Collins, of War on Want, on the struggle of garment wokers in Bangladesh.  

Tears of the Merry Widow

MUST admit I often turn first to the back of Jewish Socialist magazine to see what mischief is being wreaked in Dybbuk's Diary, and in this issue I am pleased to find some interesting info about America's first lady of Islamophobia, Pamela Geller. I don't often praise Home Secretary Theresa May, but I was pleased by her decision last year to stop a visit to Britain by Geller and her comrade in arms Robert Spencer. The pair had been due to delight an English Defence League (EDL) rally in Woolwich, with the obvious aim of exploiting the murder of Lee Rigby,for which two men have now received lfe sentences.

Geller's campaigns have ranged from opposing a Muslim cultural centre in New York (the supposed "ground zero mosque") through posters on the New York subway backing Israel as the "civilised man" against "savages", to allegations that President Obama's mother appeared in porn films and that Obama is Malcolm X's "love child". She has threatened to sue HM government over its ban on her and Spencer. Though various trusts fund their political campaigns, she has money of her own.

In 2007, police investigating a murder at Long Island's Universal Auto Sales, owned by Pamela Geller's  former husband Michael Oshry, uncovered a racket in which drug dealers and other criminals had been able to launder their proceeds and acquire expensive fast cars, which were registered to other owners. They also found bank statements had not been sent to the firm's office but to the Oshrys' home. Pamela Geller, though listed as a partner in the business, burst into tears, and told the cops she had known nothing about her husband's business affairs. That's quite a change from her usual beaming grin in photographs, and claims to know the President's innermost family secrets.

But, as Dybbuk says, it seemed to work. While a dozen people linked with Universal Auto were arrested, "Pamela Geller remained free to .collect a $4 million divorce settlement, a portion of the $1.8 million realised from the sale of theLong Island home, and then a $5 million life insurance payment when Michael Oshry died a few months after remarrying in 2008".

That sounds like quite a cutie the 'Tea Party' have got as a hostess, and the EDL have had as a friend, though I hear the police have not yet finished with Universal Auto. There is speculation that the shooting of Collin Thomas might be linked somehow with the killing of two cops, also in Long Island. There have been calls for the case to be handed over to the FBI.

Meanwhile I am interested in finding out more about the trusts that have been channeling funds to Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. And whether all that money has remained in the USA.


And talking of money, YOU may be able to buy Jewish Socialist at political events or a decent bookshop, it's £2 a copy,  but to subscribe you can send cheques or POs for £10 for four issues, made out to Jewish Socialist publications. Send to Jewish Socialist, BM3725, London WC1N 3XX.    

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Deaths and the government's dirty work

 FRENCH I.T. firm Atos let it be known last month that it was looking for an early exit from its contract with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to assess whether people on benefits are fit for work.

“In its current form it is not working for claimants, for DWP or for Atos Healthcare. For several months now we have been endeavouring to agree an early exit from the contract, which is due to expire in August 2015. Despite these ongoing discussions, we will not walk away from a frontline service.”

The news came, by co-incidence, on the same day there were nationwide protests over Atos and its tests. The papers dutifully reported that Atos said its staff had been regularly subjected to abuse and assaults, even "death threats". One's natural human sympathy with anyone who had to face that kind of thing in their work had to contend with some of the stories we have heard about the victims of Atos dirty work.
 Linda Wootton had to go for a test in January last year. Linda, aged 49, had suffered complications after a heart and lung transplant years before. She suffered blckouts, and was on ten prescribed medications. But the Atos testers asked her questions like "can you get dressed?", and "What is 100 minus 25?". They ascertained that she could lift a mobile phone, and could walk across the testing room.

 “The test only took 20 minutes,” her husband Peter remembered. “She was crying for longer than that beforehand".

Linda was pronounced fit for work.

“The benefits were actually stopped on February 14,” Peter explains. “Happy Valentine’s. She was in hospital with a chest infection, typing her appeal on her iPad, crying her eyes out. We were lucky because I earned a salary that meant we were OK and we didn’t lose the house.

"But she felt distraught about it. She’d say to me, ‘I’ll have to go back to work then.’ It was only in the days before her death she said, ‘Well, maybe I wasn’t fit for work.’ Only when she had been told she was going to die.

“The thing I find so galling is that at no point did they speak to the doctor who said her condition would not get better back in 2007,” he continues. “At no point did they speak to anyone at Harefield Hospital where she’d had her transplant. Why wouldn’t they do that?"

Linda died on April 25 last year,  only nine days after the Department of Work and Pensions finally rejected her claim of employment support allowance (ESA) of £108.05 a week, sending her a curt letter while she lay desperately ill in hospital.

Although she appealed against the decision, the DWP wrote back saying she would need to score at least 15 points from the assessment but her results were nil.

They concluded: “We have decided that you are not entitled to Employment and Support Allowance because you have been found to be capable of work following your recent Work Capability Assessment.”

Peter Wootton told the Sunday Mirror: "I sat there and listened to my wife drown in her own body fluids. It took half an hour for her to die – and that’s a woman who’s ‘fit for work’. The last months of her life were a misery because she worried about her benefits, feeling useless, like a scrounger."

"I’m not blaming Atos for her death. She died because of a collapsed lung and blood clots after a medical procedure. But I pitied the way Linda was made to feel and I still feel very, very frustrated at the way she was treated.”


Government statistics indicate that between January 2011 and November 2011, 10,600 sick and disabled people died within six weeks of their benefit claim ending. Such was the furore about this figure, the DWP has stopped using Atos data to count the number of deaths. (the Big Issue, March 10)

On March 1, I wrote about Mark Wood, "a face behind the figures", a man with mental health problems whose own doctor diagnosed unfit for work, but whom Athos deemed OK. His benefits were stopped and he starved to death, in David Cameron's west Oxfordshire constituency.

A recent article in the Big Issue told about Tim Salter, a blind 53-year-old suffering from agoraphobia. Tim hanged himself after an Atos test that found him fit to work and a DWP decision to axe his £30-a-week incapacity benefit left him wondering how he could afford his housing association rent. South Staffordshire coroner Andrew Haigh declared: “A major factor in his death was that his benefits had been greatly reduced leaving him almost destitute.”

It also gave us the case of  David Coupe  a former farmer in Derbyshire who died of a rare form of cancer in October last year. He had been stripped of his £50-a-week incapacity benefit and ruled fit to work in December 2012, despite being housebound with a painful back injury, ulcers and diabetes. It left David and his wife Lyn with just £71 a week for the last 10 months of his life.

 “David got a very rare form of cancer, it took his sight and his hearing, then finally his life,” says Lyn. “But months before that Atos had taken away his dignity. His doctors and specialist nurses wrote to the firm but never received a reply.”

Lyn says she has now been sent a letter confirming David’s backdated incapacity benefit will be paid. The Labour MP Dennis Skinner brought up David Coupe’s case in the House of Commons, memorably describing Atos as a “heartless monster”. The Prime Minister conceded it was all “desperately sad” and used it to criticise the “quality of decision-making”.


But hasn't Atos just been doing what the government paid them to do? In May 2013, Dr Greg Wood, a former Atos employee, revealed how skewed the tests were against claimants and how much pressure testers were under to change reports and find the right conclusion (ie: fit to work). 

Kaliya Franklin, aka Bendy Girl, who writes the Benefit Scrounging Scum blog, believes Atos has provided a convenient smokescreen for government strategy. “The contract was designed on the basis of reducing the number of claims,” she says. “Atos did what they were told.

Dennis Skinner says he isn’t sure “whether [Atos] are leaving before they’re shoved, or the government has realised it’s an opportunity to get rid of them and blame it on them”. The MP wants fundamental changes in medical testing of benefit claimants.

About this time last year it was revealed the government spent £37m in just eight months fighting appeals against benefit claimants declared fit for work, winning only 57% of cases. As many as 59,493 claimants won their appeals. So something, apart from claimants, is not working. At the ATOS protest in Ealing, west London, last month, lawyer Eve Turner, who is also secretary of the local trades council, spoke about the number of cases she has been winning. But as she pointed out, this was no consolation for the unfortunates who die while waiting months for their appeals to be heard.  

MPs have accused Atos of winning its contact on the back of “false promises”. As Margaret Hodge told the 'Mirror':

“It appears that ATOS got this contract by misleading the DWP about how many sites they had to carry out assessments and how many medical professionals that had ready to carry out these assessments,” she said.

“Thousands of people with severe disabilities are having to wait months and months and months for health assessments. They are the victims of the greed that obtained the contract on the back of false promises.”


Is this the end for Atos?  Far from it. Whether or not it has to pull out of the work assessment business before it is pushed, the company has fresh fields opened up to it.

Despite coming under fire for its role in testing people currently receiving disability benefits, the IT company has been given joint responsibility with the National Savings and Investments (NS&I) to implement the programme which will replace childcare vouchers, The Times reported.

NS&I confirmed that while the French IT services firm will be responsible for the payment aspect of the scheme, it will not be involved in eligibility testing.

Government sources told the newspaper that they were certain the agency is capable of running the programme.

Meanwhile, for now, Atos is carrying on dealing with disability claimants. And whoever replaces them  - Capita? G4S? - will still be doing the government's dirty work.  As minister Iain Duncan Smith carries on with his "reforms", Labour MP Sheila Gilmore says he is using the disabled as guinea pigs.

So the campaigners who demonstrated against Atos in February are not packing up their campaign.
Another wave of protests is planned on April 1, and that is no joke. An activist says there will be 144 national peaceful demonstrations against Atos and DWP. "We are demanding that work capacity assessments are no longer carried out by an IT company, but by our local GPs and the funds paid into the NHS rather than non tax paying big businesses!."

To which we may add that GPs must be properly funded and not under pressure from the government and its friends in the media to withold sick notes,

Friday, March 21, 2014

Tanks for the Memory

BRITISH Chieftains on parade. Argument over where they went and bill that was twice paid.

BACK in the early 1980s when circumstances forced me to take a security job, which was all I could get, about the only privilege for working long, boring hours, was entrance to some interesting buildings. Among the larger ones was a stately pile on Millbank, near Parliament Square, housing the offices of the Crown Agents, who supplied anything from postage stamps to pharmaceutical storage systems to overseas governments. It is now a private company with headquarters in Surrey.

Not far away, on Great Smith Street, was a neat, more modest unmarked building belonging to an offshoot of the Crown Agents, International Military Services(IMS). When I spent a night there my instructions included to check all desks in the reading room for any materials or documents that had been left out, and if I found any, to make a note of the location, then remove the items to a safe in the office. Had I been there during the day I might have seen visitors from various countries perusing manuals and catalogues of military hardware for export, much like you or I looking through an Argos catalogue.

At that time the Argentine junta had a naval purchasing mission in Victoria, as it seems HM government was very sportingly helping them prepare for the Falklands/Malvinas war. Other visitors who came on shopping trips had included both Iranians and Iraqis.

IMS, which also had a much larger modern building in Abbey Orchard Street, had been set up by Harold Wilson's Labour government in 1974, but its first chairman was Sir John Cuckney, a former director of Midland Bank, whose name later cropped up in the controversy over arms to Iraq. It was Midland Bank which had a special section devoted to military equipment sales, and which loaned large sums to Saddam Hussein's government. Any losses made when the regime defaulted or was brought down were covered by the British Department of Trade and Industy's Export Credit guarantees, in other words, the public.

However, our current story concerns arms to Iran.

Between 1971 and 1976, the Shah of Iran had ordered 1,500 Chieftain tanks and 250 repair vehicles costing £650 million. The shah's regime paid up front, which must have come in handy for the British government. But then in 1979,  with only 185 tanks delivered,  the Iranian Revolution deposed the Shah, and installed an Islamic Republic. The massive arms deal came apart, and the Iranians asked for their money back. But the British government had other ideas.

"We chose not to return the equivalent of £450 million that Iran had paid us," said Tory MP Ben Wallace. "Instead we sold the tanks to Saddam Hussein who then proceeded to use them against the people of Iran."

In 2010 it was reported that the Iranian government had won a longdrawn out court case ove this, and that Britain, more specifically IMS, was waiting for the Iranians to apply for their money, and would then pay it back. But by last year the money had still not been paid, possibly because of sanctions against Iran. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office granted visas to a group of Iranian officials to come and pursue their case for the funds in the courts here. But no sooner had the Iranians touched down at Heathrow than their passports were seized, their visas revoked, and themselves locked up as supposed asylum-seekers.

(This reminds me incidentally of another case, when a British diplomat who had been working in Iran was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and his home was searched, although he was never charged. It looked as though MI6 and MI5 might have been working at cross purposes).+

Ben Wallace, MP for Wyre and Preston North, is a former Army intelligence officer who also served as overseas director for QinetiQ, the now privatised MoD research and development company. He is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Iran. Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate on March 11, he urged that the money owed to the Iranians be released now that relations were improving. The MP also expressed concern that while the US government was issuing letters of comfort to assist US banks wishing to trade in Iran after sanctions were eased, British banks had no such protection from the long reach of Congress.

IMS is fairly dormant as a company now that arms sales are left to private companies, but it is being kept going to deal with cases like the Iranian claim, which could reach court here in June.

Meanwhile, according to Private Eye, the Treasury has Iran listed as owing the UK money on this deal, because the Shah borrowed part of the money for the deal from British banks, which were paid £28.44 million under our old friend the Export Credit Guarantee Department.  






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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Twenty Years Ago

 TWENTY years ago I was involved in Workers Aid for Bosnia, a left-wing initiative to support the Bosnian people against aggression and "ethnic cleansing" and to take material aid, particularly to the workers of Tuzla, a mining and industrial town in the north of the country, with a tradition of resistance to fascism.

Today, twenty years later, Tuzla has been at the centre of a storm of unrest against the privatisers and asset-strippers wrecking its economy. A new generation of young people are finding their voice as they fight for their future, and their movement has already burst the banks of the divisions brought by war and intervention. 

This article, written after I had been to Tuzla on a convoy, was commissioned by my late friend  Bernard Misrahi, and appeared in the November-December issue of 'Chartist'.  It was also included in the anthology 'Taking Sides' published later by Workers Aid for Bosnia.

Workers Aid, initiated by Trotskyists, and much inspired and informed by a Serb comrade, was a remarkable achievement, largely thanks to the support and involvment of "ordinary" people, from pensioners to youth, and trade unionists.  Of course it was only a fraction of what was needed, and what could have been done, had more people, and bigger organisations, put their mind to it.

But nevertheless, I like to think that in helping some of our brave Bosnian friends keep alive, we may also have helped keep alive the flame of resistance and hope that is alight again today.   


  Solidarity on wheels

"THEY want to divide up Bosnia. So what am I supposed to do?" demanded Adzic, "Divorce my
wife, split up my family? Where will my children go? My wife is a Serb. I am Muslim... ha! me a Muslim! I've not been in a mosque since I was a kid.

"But now, they put a label on you. And for people there it is different. You must go to the church, or go to the mosque, if you want to eat. I could never believe that this would happen in my country..."

We'd been collecting for Bosnia, on a cold winter afternoon, and were in a cafe in Leeds. Adzic had heard from his sister, after months of worrying whether she and her children were still alive. But her letter told of burned homes, friends taken away, 'ethnic cleansing'. I wondered what people on neighbouring tables were making of this.

What was I making of it? Could I continue with routine meetings, gossiping with old friends on demonstrations, going for a meal, contented I'd done my bit? Maybe somewhere at the back of my mind a picture of that Bosnian woman fleeing with her children resonated with something I'd heard as a kid, about a young girl fleeing a pogrom in Russia, carrying her baby brother, my grandfather.

Earlier this year, fed up with hearing why we could not, or should not, do anything, I told friends I was going to Bosnia. Workers Aid for Bosnia were sending a convoy to Tuzla, a mining town with a mixed population. Though I'm not a driver, they agreed I could go.

We assembled in Zagreb. Seventeen lorries with food from the miners' union of Slovenia. Six from Germany, driven by Bosnians who’d been working there, Jacques from Normandy,  with  a huge
long truck loaded with milling grain and seeds. Sue from New Zealand who had fetched a lorry load of medical supplies from Sweden; Paddy, from Glasgow, ex-soldier reading politics at Cambridge, putting his convov-driving experience to use. Lisa doing the same with her studies in nutrition. Young Andy from the Lake District, long-haired and scruffy, who proved ace at repairing lorries, and handling them on iced-up mountain roads.

 MAKING FRIENDS in central Bosnia, Sue from New Zealand

Paul, a young lorry driver from Leyland had heard about the convoy on local radio, and decided to take his annual holiday driving with us. "I'd seen Bosnia on the news, and it just seemed the right thing to do"'. Dot, a Marxist since her teens, had found the hardest bit telling her grandchildren she wouldn't be with them at Christmas, when she led the previous convoy.

The quickest way to Tuzla is straight down an all-weather highway via Zupanje. It's recommended in tour maps. But that was before the war. Now this northern route runs through a narrow neck of Serb- held territory, and UNPROFOR doesn't want to disturb them. So it's down the winding coast road to Split, where we're joined by the Spanish and Basque comrades with a coach stacked with food.

From here a zig-zag route leads over the mountains, via hairpin bends and makeshift tracks.

Fortunately, fighting between Bosnian and Croat forces had ceased. And with fine weather, we'll be facing dust clouds, instead of slithering on mud (the snow and ice came on our way back). But first there's a three-dav wait on a hot, dusty lorry-park outside Split, while papers are sorted out with UN and Croat officials, who poke about in our lorries, looking for anything that s not on the paperwork. The Bosnian drivers are impatient to leave, anxious to reach their homes, not knowing what they'll find.

At Kamenets, a cold wait at dawn, while armed border officials of the Croat: 'Hercog-Bosna' statelet look in the lorries, and half-seriously accuse Fazlovic, one of the Bosnians, of 'black-marketeering', after finding 200 cigarettes in his cab. They're just throwing their weight around. While we're waiting I scramble up the hillside to find a suitab1e bush, toilet roll in my pocket. Evidently I'm not the first, so I step gingerly. Though the border point has no toilets, a dutyfree shop is waiting to open - the enterprise culture has arrived.

We were lucky, moving off after a few hours. A smaller convoy the following month was kept waiting at the border for ten days. Friends who went out this Summer were thrown in a water-logged basement cell in Mostar by the Croat  HVO militia, and only freed after Labour MPs and trade unions, here and in Croatia protested about their disappearance.

Our trip had begun almost like a holiday ~ moonlit Adriatic coves, swimming near Split, wooded hills, blue lakes and snow- capped peaks under the sun. Then came the burnt-out houses, in increasing numbers A friend pointed out some marked with a white cross, left unscathed.

Bosnians had returned from working abroad to build these family homes. Now their life-work was in ruins. We pass hungry-eyed children, desperate for a few sweets thrown from the window. An old man gratefully accepts a cigarette. A young girl dashes across the road to slow down vehicles, so the little ones can get something.The Bosnians and Slovenes are better prepared, throwing out big bags of popcorn as they go by. At a turning, a young head-scarved mother holds a toddler to wave, and we find some chocolate and an orange to give her. 'Hwala', thanks, she smiles, brushing back a tear. My eyes need wiping too.

At Prozor, as dusk fell, drunken Croat militiamen stagger out of bars. One of them rammed a riflebutt through Jacques' windscreen. At Gorni Vakuf, a British officer told us we must wait till morning, but not step off the road as there were mines about. I'm told several people have been maimed or killed by small anti-personnel mines left at roadsides. We saw a lot of young people with legs missing. The British government exports such mines, but refused export licenses for mine detectors under the arms embargo on Bosnia.

Entering Bosnian-held territory, we pass through small towns with mixed Muslim and Croat population, and no burned out houses or other signs of ethnic cleansing. Workers cycling home from a power station wheel over to ask where we're going. "Tuzla? Very good. People hungry in Tuzla. Good luck!" Over the hills to Vares, with minaret and church spire intact amid neat suburbs. Past half-derelict rusting works that remind me of England.

On the steep hill out of Vares, a young lad in Bosnian army camouflage-fatigues comes over. "You are from England?" . Dirk, our driver, is from Germany, Genevieve's from Belgium, Edna's from Leeds,... 'So this is international workers' solidarity?'. 'That's right, chuck!' says Edna. 'Great!' he beams, and turns to explain to his mates .

We've a crooked rock-hewn tunnel to pass through, and more climbing. Jacques' lorry has to be diverted to Zenica, and its load decanted into smaller vehicles. We spend a night on windswept Mount Milenkovic, hearing Serb artillery. Next morning a man with a wheelbarrow and shovel is out mending holes in the road. We share tea and cigarettes with him. He s a Serb too, keeping the aid route open, unpaid.. "When this war is over, we must not forget people like him," says Farouk, our guide from Tuzla. Whenever I hear the BBC refer to Dr .Karadzic and his gangsters as "the Bosnian Serbs", I remember this decent man mending the road to Tuzla.

Tuzla reminded me almost of a northern town. Even the mosques are like little Nonconformist chapels with minarets. Our hosts, the Kreka miners' union, are proud of their tradition. Outside their centre stands a heroic statue of a miner with a rifle commemorating not just the partisans, as I thought, but a strike in 1921 when thev resisted the Serb royal regime's attempt to deport 'foreign' (eg Croat) miners. In 1984-5 Tuzla miners held regular collections for British miners.

Many of the buildings in Tuzla bear scars of shellfire. Food and fuel are in short supply and there were power cuts. Tihomir, with whom I was staying, told us by candlelight about running with his wife and child to reach a shelter, and seeing children blown to pieces. A mining engineer, he had spent some time in England, and showed me his souvenirs -NUM badges. Tihomir didn't think much of the government in Sarajevo, but was proud of the voung men in his army unit, who "always look after each other, whatever their background, and whatever the danger".

The big cream-painted Serb Orthodox church was restored after Serb shelling. At Easter, people collected food parcels there. Little notices pinned around the town, some with snapshots, announced latest deaths in action. Some had green crescents, others black crosses, and some
had red stars. Before the war, more than 20 per cent of Tuzla people were of mixed families, identified as 'Yugoslav'.

The town is full of Muslim refugees, country folk. I saw a man grazing goats outside the bank. There are crescents and stars scrawled with 'SDA' - Izetbegovic's Muslim-based party. But the mayor and council are proudly secular, non-nationalist, social democrat. Delivering aid to them and the miners helps them keep the town united.

A noisy Saturday night rock-concert must have been audible up in the hills. Another way of annoying the Serb nationalist chetniks by insisting everything stays 'normal'. Ninella, 19, taking part in a shooting competition next day, was asked whether she practised with pop-up Serbs as targets. "Not Serbs, chetniks!', she admonished. Her army friend said: 'All chetniks are Serbs, but not all Serbs are chetniks."

Back home in England, a Tower Hamlets Liberal tells the radio interviewer "It's not natural for different people to live together, look at Bosnia'; and an anti-racist friend can't understand why I "take sides". But 'ordinary' people whom he would deem 'non-political' understand.

The news is Tuzla has been shelled, and the road through Vares is threatened. Some idiot here accuses us of carrying guns to Bosnia. I think of Ninella and her friends, of Tihomir and his family, and of that lad whose eyes lit up at 'international workers solidarity"; and I wish we could.

TUZLA, Bosnia and Hercogovina

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